Farming without soil? Rebuilding a life? Welcome to Fresh Tech: a towering story of food, family and rebirth.

Jack and his Beanstalk would love this.

Farming without soil? Rebuilding a life? Welcome to Fresh Tech: a towering story of food, family and rebirth.
Bok choy, beans, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

"The future of farming."

Four years ago, Brad and Tara Smith were neck-deep in two careers – he was a landscape architect and planner; she, an elementary school principal – living near the Space Coast in historic and hip Ocala, Florida.

Both highly successful, both deeply kind. Tara is big-hearted, resilient and patient; Brad is precise, direct and generous. They're 3 am people: you call for help in the middle of the night, and they come running.

But in Ocala, they often felt like they were running too much.

"We were workaholics," Tara admitted.

They sure weren't farmers, either.

There in Ocala? The Smiths didn't know arugula from a hole in the ground.

Funny, how things change.

Brad and Tara Smith, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

Today, they're farming and living on 67 acres in Meigs County with a greenhouse, hoop house and henhouse. There's rolling pasture, a pond with largemouth, a front porch swing straight out of a postcard.

It's their own Green Acres story. You might mistake this as a straightforward agricultural tale. Don't.

"It's about family," said Tara.

It's also about the future of Southern farming.

Tara Smith, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

The Smiths own Fresh Tech Growers. They're full-time farmers; according to their estimates, they sold 3000 pounds of produce last year while supplying multiple restaurants, farmers' markets and a growing customer base – like me – fueled by a bold but simple business wish: "We want to be part of everyone's grocery list," said Tara.

Funny what life – 13-hour-Ocala-days to farming in Meigs County – brings.

Maybe the funniest?

Their farm. It doesn't have any soil.

"Nope," said Brad.

Welcome to the future, Chattanooga. In a world of decreasing farmland and increasing drought, the Smith created Fresh Tech Growers: an aeroponic farm that represents a viable, delicious and kinda otherworldly approach to agriculture.

What's aeroponics?

"The future of farming," said Brad.

On the outside looking in, it seems mysterious, intriguing and so ... vertical.

On the inside? It's beautiful, thrilling, otherworldly.

Think Jack and the Beanstalk meets Blade Runner.

Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

Inside their 26' x 96' greenhouse, the Smiths installed six rows of 132 aeroponic towers from Tower Farms. Each tower stands eight feet tall and each tower contains 44 individual ports. Six additional micro green towers hold 88 ports each.

Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

In each port, a plant – red strawberries, beans, purple snap peas, red peppers, bok choy, broccoli, kale, spinach – grows in lush greenness.

Peppers, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

It totals more than 6,330 plants, all growing within a 26' x 96' greenhouse without any soil.

"It's not so much a farm as it is a science," said Tara.

Our necks crane; everywhere, produce stretching towards the ceiling.

Bok Choy, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

Five towers of cauliflower. Eight towers of beans. Five towers of broccoli. Nine towers of spinach. Kale, everywhere. Bok choy towering above like Godzillas.

It gives off a minimalist two-color vibe: stark, hospital-white towers and rich forest green splotches growing from them. There's a palpable sense of ease in this greenhouse, walking through tall alleys of eight foot beans and purple peas and red leaf lettuce overhead while strawberries melt in your mouth in the dead of winter. Blood pressure drops, stress drops. I don't care who you are; this experience is good for the heart.

"Yes," said Tara. "I love being in here."

Beans, Tara Smith, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

A big 1,100 gallon tank of purified well-water is infused with a NPK-cocktail of macro-and-micro nutrients then piped down the floor, subdivided into rows where water is gravity-fed through pipes in the hollow center of each white tower.

Water runs five minutes every half-hour, giving plant roots intermittent exposure to nutrient-rich water. This is aeroponic: intermittent exposure to water. (I didn't know, either.) Aeroponic's first cousin, hydroponic farming, means roots are given constant access to water.

Broccoli, Brad Smith, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

Each tower requires 20 gallons; all in all, the operation requires more than 2600 gallons total. Yet, the water recirculates in a closed-loop system.

"The only thing lost is to evaporation," Brad said.

Red leaf lettuce, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

The towers are built by Tower Farms, which claims tower farming uses 98% less water than conventional farming.

A cooling pad, a seven-fan system – three for exhaust, four for circulation – and a wall-sized radiator called a "swamp cooler" allow Fresh Tech to grow year-round, four seasons of produce.

Stunningly, the only soil in the room is the dirt I track in on my shoes.

Strawberries, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

According to Tower Farm, tower farming can lead to 30% greater yields using an estimated 10% of the land mass required to grow equivalent amount of crops as soil farmer.

All this creates a sustainable farm for the present and future South: using less land, less water while growing year-round food.

Food as a Verb thanks Lupi's, our sustaining partner, for its generous support.

For more than 25 years, Lupi's has served locally-sourced, creatively made and award-winningly delicious pizza pies from five nearby locations.

Between 2001 and 2016, our nation "lost or compromised 2,000 acres of farmland and ranchland every day," according to American Farmland Trust's "Farms Under Threat 2040" report.

"If this trend continues," the report claims, "another 18.4 million acres will be converted between 2016 and 2040 — an area nearly the size of South Carolina."

(Food as a Verb will report on farmland loss, its implications and solutions later this year.)

For Brad, tower farming is a response.

"Farmland is being swallowed up by subdivisions with densities that appear as a blight on the landscape when viewed from an airplane," said Brad. "Farmers are forced to weigh the possibility of cashing out against the prospect of continuing to manage the land when their children aren’t interested in investing their lives into the family business. We are losing both farmland and farmers."

Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

Sure, it hasn't been easy street. There was considerable financial investment. To deter digging critters, they installed a gravel barrier. Brad, ever-keen, spotted and tweaked some flaws in the tower design. Once, they planted Brussel sprouts in the towers, only to witness near-catastrophe, as the towers grew top-heavy, almost toppling like "dominoes in some bad movie," Brad said.

Seeds are started in rockwool flats of spun volcanic ash, then transplanted into each tower where, depending on variety, they live and produce for weeks, if not months.

Flats, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

An adjacent hoop house holds traditional raised beds for root vegetables and produce too heavy for towers.

Greenhouse, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

But, this isn't just a story about agriculture.

It's about family.

Remember workaholic Florida?

Four years ago, they'd driven up for their visit with daughter Joanna, her husband Robby and their growing family, who live in Ooltewah.

Brad and Tara are the epitome of grandparent affection: both warm, thoughtful, sensitive ... but also eight hours away.

"We came up three times a year," said Tara. "We were never there for birthday parties, basketball names, recitals, baptisms."

On their visit, Joanna and Robby – who had recently purchased 67 acres at auction in Meigs County – sat them down and, with tremendous gratitude, made them an offer. (You see where this is going, don't you.)

You've invested so much in us. We now want to invest in you.

Joanna and Robbie offered them this 67-acre farm. Sure, it needed some work, but, would they consider moving in? As a gift?

"We immediately said yes," remembers Tara.

Ten months later, they'd relocated in time to witness the birth of their eighth grandchild.

Greenhouse + hoop house, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

With 67 acres, Brad and Tara realized a second life was calling.

Brad had an idea.

His landscape architecture career led him into the world of elderly care where he encountered a client who, wanting the best for his aging mother, had installed tower farming in her senior living community, allowing her to continue to garden and enjoy fresh, highly nutritious food.

Brad was intrigued.

Tower Farms towers, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

For years, those towers percolated in the back of Brad's memory.

Now, with 67 acres ... and a house that just sold in Florida ... one idea emerged:

Can we build our own tower farm in Tennessee?

"We held our breath and jumped," Brad remembers.

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Today, they serve multiple restaurants, including Mac's Kitchen & Bar and Inman Social in Cleveland, where Tara says James Beard-nominated chef Wesley True has been a mentor and friend.

They're sell at Main Street Farmers' Market and Gaining Ground Grocery. They deliver doorstep-direct to customers – "like Amazon," Tara says – on Lookout Mtn., downtown, Signal Mountain and Ooltewah, often asking customers: what would you like us to grow for you?

That's how we first met.

Having tried my own small hydroponic farm – it did not go well at all – I was intrigued by their tower farming. Brad and Tara became market friends, their kindness as robust as their greenhouse produce. Tara would grow spinach varieties just for me. She won me over to bok choy. Nowadays, we talk as much about life and family as we do vegetables.

"We find ourselves now relating to people and loving people we never would have crossed paths with. All because of food."

They're participating in the Coordinated Crop Production Planning initiative, trying to find that Goldilocks-just-right spot between production and need.

"Balancing supply and demand," Brad said. "People today want more chard. But then, during the summer, we had too much product not enough market."

The goal?

"Full capacity," Brad said, "and feeding as many as possible."

Their vision?

"To take this technology into the fuller market," he continued. "Especially to seniors in senior living communities."

Strawberries, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

Before we say goodbye, we climb into their farm truck; Brad shifts into 4x4 and drives us high up their eastern ridge.

This is not in Florida anymore, Toto.

Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

We stand in silence, letting the view do its work. Brad and Tara, married for 44 years, turn reflective.

"I never thought I'd be a farmer," Brad said.

Funny what life brings.

"Our world in Florida was insular at times," he continued. "We find ourselves now relating to people and loving people we never would have crossed paths with. All because of food."

Tug on one strand of their story – food – and you find it connected and intertwined with the other strand: family.

"We pinch ourselves," Brad says. "What a joy after all these years of parallel careers, we are now partners together."

Brad and Tara Smith, Fresh Tech Growers, Meigs County, Tenn.

All photography by Sarah Unger.

All design by Alex DeHart.

All words by David Cook. This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

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