TRAVERSE CITY —
Mike McHugh is used to the double takes his strawberries sometimes get out of season.
"People say, 'Where did you get these?' and I kind of point to our backyard," said McHugh, owner along with his wife, Nichole, of Cedar Sol Hydroponic Farm. "They think I get them from Florida or Mexico."
McHugh is among a handful of area farmers dedicated to hydroponics, a method of growing food without soil. For strawberry lovers, that means sweet, juicy berries — and shortcake and smoothies — from as early as June right up until the first hard frost.
Both McHugh and Mark Garrett, manager of his family's Stoney Beach Farm on Old Mission Peninsula, use a stacked hydroponic system to grow the berries and other produce. The method minimizes water consumption, decreases the amount of growing land needed and gives the farmers almost complete control over the plants' basic requirements.
"We grow comparable to eight acres on a quarter-acre of land," said McHugh, who uses just three quarts of water a day to irrigate a vertical stack of 20 strawberry plants. Better yet, "we know exactly what that plant is eating, the nutrients it's getting, what it's taking up from the dirt," he said.
The plants — "everbearing" instead of the more common June-bearing — are potted in soilless media and fed with a drip watering method through spaghetti tubes. McHugh uses a growing media of vermiculite and perlite; Garrett, a combination of coir and pine bark.
"It's not the media that's growing the plants, it's the water," said Garrett, who replaces his plants every two years for top yields. "The media are holding the water near the roots and releasing nutrients as needed."
The result is fruit that's red and flavorful all the way through, even out of season, unlike much fruit grown in hothouses.
"I've got consumers who say they don't eat strawberries during the time when we don't have them," Garrett said.
This year's berries will be available by late June at Stoney Beach and by mid-July at Cedar Sol. That's usually when strawberries disappear from other roadside stands and farmers markets.
"Lots of times we put 20 quarts in the fridge and you can come back at night and they'll be gone," said Garrett, who also sells to wholesale customers including Burritt's Fresh Markets and Chateau Chantal.
Both farms offer popular u-pick options with a convenient twist.
"It's very clean, no bending. You just take a bag and scissors," said McHugh, whose u-pick customers are often lulled to sleep by the bucolic view of the Cedar Valley from the farm on County Road 651 just south of Cedar. "It's amazing how quickly you can pick a whole row of strawberries. You can pick six pounds in a matter of 10 minutes."
Customers also can enjoy fresh-made tacos and pick kale, chard, lettuce, spinach, heirloom tomatoes, corn, radishes, onions, cucumbers, sweet and hot peppers, squash, zucchini, basil and many other herbs. All but the corn are grown hydroponically, McHugh said.
For Garrett, hydroponics is a way to carry on the tradition of farming on land that has been in his mother-in-law's family for generations. The farm, located at the corner of Gray Road and M-37 about 5 1/2 miles up Old Mission Peninsula, once was known for its cherries and chickens. Now the property is home to bed-and-breakfast and alpaca operations along with the farm, which also produces Saskatoon berries and hydroponic lettuce, spinach, tomatoes and peppers.
U-pick hours vary and are posted on the farms' websites throughout the summer. For more information, see cedarsolhydrofarm.com or stoneybeachfarm.com.
Garrett offers these strawberry recipes for warm summer days and cool summer nights.
4 c. frozen or fresh strawberries
1 c. sugar
½ c. water
¼ c. lemon juice
4 c. unsweetened apple juice
8 c. raspberry ginger ale or fruit-flavored mineral water
Combine strawberries, sugar, water and lemon juice in blender; blend on high until smooth. Pour mixture into punch bowl or large pitcher; add apple juice and ginger ale. Stir and serve.
2 ½ lbs. chicken wings
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 T. grated fresh gingerroot
3 T. fresh lemon juice
1/3 c. soy sauce
Crushed hot pepper flakes to taste (optional)
¾ c. strawberry preserves
Wash and trim chicken wings. Place in 9 x 13-inch baking dish to marinate. Combine garlic, ginger, lemon juice, soy sauce and hot pepper flakes; pour over wings and marinate 1 hour. Drain and reserve marinade. Combine reserved marinade with strawberry preserves.
Arrange chicken wings, upside down, in baking dish; bake 20 minutes at 375°. Turn over wings and coat with reserved marinade-preserves mixture. Bake 20 minutes more or until wings are tender and brown. Before serving, garnish with strawberry fans and scallions, if desired. (For an easier, slow-cook method, place all ingredients in a Crock-Pot for 6 hours or so.)