Building Indoor Ecosystems

By Beacon Staff

To say they merely grow vegetables at Mountainview Gardens is like saying Thomas Edison tinkered with toys. It’s true, but it’s missing the point.

In fact, at Mountainview Gardens, they’re creating indoor ecosystems where everything from humidity to ventilation to pollination is carefully regulated. Nearly 7,000 tomato plants, some sprawling 30 feet along a hanging string system, grow side by side with 6,000 heads of lettuce and 1,000 cucumber plants.

This is not your family greenhouse; this is hydroponic gardening on a grand scale.

“You’re creating life cycles in here,” said Darren Banek, one of Mountainview Gardens’ three owners. “If you have a problem, you have to create a life cycle to take care of that problem.”

At Mountainview Gardens, located north of Kalispell, 10 large greenhouses give year-round shelter to towering rows of tomatoes and other veggies. It could be below zero outside in the dead of winter, but inside the climate-controlled greenhouses it’s humid and warm. The vegetables are safe.

Using a system of hydroponics, tomatoes are grown from germination to vine ripeness without ever touching soil. The same goes for the other vegetables, which include cucumbers, lettuce and basil. Yellow bell peppers and rosemary are being grown as experimental crops right now as well.

After germination, when the plants are in their earliest growth stages, a computerized hydration system provides water every 25 minutes in one-minute intervals. Then the maturing lettuce is transported to enclosed troughs that have a constant trickle of water running along the bottom. The tomatoes and cucumbers are placed in containers with perlite, which is a volcanic glass material with a high water content. In both cases, no soil is used.

The vegetables from Mountainview Gardens are all natural and pesticide-free. And employees there work diligently, with a degree of trial and error, to keep it natural. A lot can go wrong when a garden is open year-round, such as pests or fungus and mold that form in the damp climate.

To fight these intruders naturally, Banek and his crew have to get creative at times. For the aphids, they bring in a wasp that feeds on the tiny bugs and lays its eggs inside their bodies. For certain types of fungus, they bring in other species of fungus that restore balance.

Banek said there are only a handful of other hydroponic commercial gardens in the state, and none as big as his operation until the West Coast. So when things go wrong, he doesn’t have many peers to turn to. You learn on the run. Banek said regions with less wide-open cropland than the United States, like Europe, have long used hydroponics. He said “it’s catching on” in the U.S., but slowly.

“We’re pushing the envelope, but things so far are going well,” Banek said.

Mountainview Gardens distributes produce to most supermarkets in Flathead County and along U.S. Highway 93 down to Polson. It also makes weekly shipments to several locations in Missoula, including the Good Food Store and the University of Montana. Mondays and Thursdays are reserved for picking and packaging; by the next day the markets have their vegetables. Look for the blue stickers bearing the company’s name on the vegetables.

“They’re getting everything 24 hours off the plant,” Banek said.

Since its inception in September of 2007, Mountainview Gardens has prided itself on keeping fresh produce on local shelves year round. It started as a business idea between Banek and Keith Graham. Banek used his business management background while Graham brought the agricultural expertise. Later they added a third partner, D.J. Paolini.

In the beginning, there were three greenhouses. Today there are 10, plus a separate area for packing, shipping and office work. Inside the greenhouses, swamp coolers and 14 large fans help maintain temperature and humidity. On some days, the humidity might be 15 percent outside and it’s more than 70 percent inside. Several beehives provide bumblebees for pollination.

Banek said the next goal is obtaining a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement a geothermal energy system that extracts water from an aquifer. Energy bills could be reduced by 60 to 70 percent, Banek said. But even without the geothermal energy, Mountainview Gardens is an oasis in Montana’s coldest months.

“Everything’s green, everything’s alive in here,” Banek said. “It’s like a retreat from the harshness of winter.”

For more information, go to www.mtproduce.com or call (406) 871-0312.

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