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Planting and planning for a better future

Ken Withrow sits his kitchen table which originally was barn door.  |  Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media

Ken Withrow sits at his kitchen table, which originally was a barn door. | Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 10, 2014 6:09AM



“Live at home.”

— George Washington Carver

Ken Withrow lives on 10 acres in Valparaiso with Julie Lentz, the doula who appeared in my Sunday column.

Withrow, 43, is co-director of operations of Green Farms A&M. It’s an indoor, vertical hydroponic farm. He also is involved with a not-for-profit project called the Northwest Indiana Society for Sustainable Living.

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That’s quite a kitchen table you have there.

“It came off one of the barns out back,” he said. “It was a solid oak door. It took four of us to carry it in here. The house is 120 years old. The farm is actually 200 years old, but the original house burned down in the 1880s. At one time, the farm was 200 acres.”

Lived in Valpo all your life?

“I grew up in Oakland, California. I moved here in ’92 after I got out of the Army. I switched from art at the University of California in Santa Cruz to biology and physics at Purdue University Calumet. Have you ever seen ‘The Lost Boys?’ ”

Yeah, pretty good vampire flick made in the ’80s.

“Santa Cruz is where they filmed it. That’s where I learned to surf.”

Why the switch in majors?

“I decided I didn’t want to pay somebody to teach me art anymore. I had all my Army college money that I’d earned. I thought to myself, ‘What’s interesting?’ ”

What made you decide to go to Purdue Cal?

“Their biology department was amazing. Plus, I had family out here and free room and board. The professors were incredible; I can’t complain.”

I believe Purdue is world renowned for its veterinary program.

“I was going to do that, but I worked at Woodmar Animal Clinic and realized if I became a vet I’d also become a murderer.”

Why’s that?

“Pet owners (stink). They’re just horrible. There are very few good owners. I decided to get into research and physics and maybe teach at the university.”

You ended up in the hydroponics business. What’s the A&M stand for in Green Farms A&M?

“Agronomics and mycology. We started the company in 2010.”

Is this the location where you grow your vegetables?

“No, we recently signed a contract for a building in Pines. We have some really decent investors. We will eventually build a new building here as well. I already teach sustainable living to people here.”

Ken, during the ’80s and early ’90s, I organically raised three acres of vegetables for sale. I’m not a rookie, but I’m in the dark regarding hydroponics.

“Hydroponics is soil-less gardening. Basically, you supply all the components to the plant minus the soil. The reason for that is it’s more controllable. You can predict outcomes better, which makes the market analysis better. One of the biggest issues with modern agriculture is, first off, you’re bound by the elements. Secondly, soil is a science in itself. There are so many variables that can slip in such as pests and whatnot. We use no pesticides or chemicals. We do use all-natural hydroponic nutrients.”

The plants grow upside down.

“Technically, that’s a misnomer. The plant dangles. Roots don’t grow upward. Roots shoot for the water. The water can’t be placed above it because it will fall down. Different plants require different techniques. Right now, we’re working on fruit trees, berries and much more.”

Tell me more.

“We co-designed this thing. I was a combat engineer for four years and I ran a water treatment plant at Beta Steel where I got into automation engineering. All those things fell in with the hydroponic business.

“What I really want to do is get people to grow their own food. I’m really into community activism. And I want to keep one of the biggest industries that keep people harnessed — which is food — and create a solution. It took us a couple of years of 12- and 14-hour days of brainstorming with computers and graphs to come up with something that worked.”

The Northwest Indiana Society for Sustainable Living?

“There are many horticulturists and permaculturists working with me on this project. We have a wild guess that this area might be the remnants of a natural existing food force designed by the Hopewell Indians. Permaculturists come from all over to check this place out because this is what they design and it’s here.

“The Hopewell Indians are an offshoot of the Hopi Indians, who are an offshoot of the Mayans. Permaculture started in South America. This place was like a meeting ground for the Native Americans. They would use the Sauk Trail which is (Indiana 2) to meet because this area had an energy about it. It was so rich in life.”

I know the Hopewell Indians were mound builders. How long were they around here?

“About 1,000 years. Agriculture was one of their fortes. You see it all over South America. Permaculture is high-yield, low-impact farming. No equipment, not tilling, no chemicals. You work your plants in zones that co-work with each other. One acre can produce what it would traditionally take 10 to 20 acres to produce.”

Ken, have you had your IQ tested?

“I don’t believe in testing. I have an issue with a lot of organized stuff like that. There are some really, really creative and intellectual people who aren’t book knowledgeable or aren’t good test takers.

“I also have an issue with universities and public schools because of where they’ve gotten, to where they came from. They used to be better. It has become an industry just like prisons. I realize people have to get paid, but in other countries you go to a university for free. Why not here? We can spend $83 billion in Iraq in one year. It would cost $62 billion per year to have every student in the country go to school for free.”

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Did I mention the guy also has made a living as a writer and musician?



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