Tracy Lang and Mark Taylor are turning an old sandpit into farmland by using chicken tillage, cover crops and wood chips to amend the soil and rewild the area.
Nearly 40 people turned out Sept. 25 to see how Lang and Taylor operate the hydroponic Vireo Farm on Bainbridge to grow herbs and veggies, raise Japanese quail and chickens, and restore native food plants all in one location. Hydroponics is the process of growing plants in sand, gravel, or liquid, with added nutrients but without soil.
For 3½ years, Lang and Taylor have been improving the land in a variety of ways — cultivating a wildflower project, sustainable perennial crops and annuals for eating.
Taylor explained that the state of the land and the plants are what has been allowed to grow and live in this area. “You’re looking at soil that’s not even a millimeter thick, and it’s been twenty years. It’s a problem. We’d like to change that by accelerating it.”
The farm on Island Center Road used to be a brown field. “It’s not toxic waste. It’s just been abused. I think that looking forward to the future, as we go around and try to make a livable, sustainable place in our local ecology, we’re going to be confronting this problem more and more. How do you take a parking lot and turn it into a farm?” Taylor said.
In this case, Lang and Taylor are turning a sandpit and excavated dirt from construction of the movie theater in Winslow into a large outdoor garden and 1,800- square -foot hydroponics farm.
Taylor plans to be here for a while and has an agreement with the city to improve the land. But at some point, he’s going to stop his operation and want to leave something behind.
“That’s a big part of what this wilding project is addressing. I would really love to leave behind a field of native, semi-wild plants, that serves as an arboretum for demonstrating how much grows here that you can eat,” he said, referring to the plants that people have eaten here for years and touched on Native American history of food uses.
They have planted native Serviceberry, Elderberry and Buffaloberry; Huckleberry, Salmonberry and Great Camus bulbs to “introduce new flavors into our kitchens and onto our plates,” Taylor said.
Taylor is a senior infrastructure engineer for Dell Corp. with a background in design process and describes himself as a dirt hippy with an accidental day job. “This really meshes well with my main competence,” especially in the hydroponics building, he said.
Given the historical rainfall on BI, Taylor said he can expect 30,000 gallons of water to hit the roof of the domed hydroponic building every year, and he’s putting in a small retaining pond with a 6,000-gallon capacity. “That’s more than enough to sustain us most through dry periods.” The water will fall into a gravel bed that gets pumped through a slow sand filter and then into a filtration system inside the house.
Inside the hydroponics shed, the grow racks resemble stacks found in a data center. White PVC tubes hold the plant starts that are in little pots illuminated by suspended grow lights as water can be heard running through the system.
“The goal here is to use commodity elements in the production facility with common rack components and common PVC, to minimize specially manufactured, purpose-built components. I can take this, and we can drop a container anywhere in the world and be up and running within a week. And we don’t need to source anything securely.”
With the aim of using less water, Taylor had designed his system for the plants and what they need. “We want to use as little water as possible, and we are using historically low quantities of water.” He said that hydroponics advisors recommend 400 gallons of water for the racks, but he’s running each at 60 gallons because it is also delivering nutrients and fertilizer to the plants. “That’s part of what we want to get away from because in our garden we’re using compost tea,” he said.