Those who think they have no time for healthy eating will sooner or later have to find time for illness. People cannot control everything in their lives, but they can control what they put into their bodies. That was the experience for Ryan Willet. Ryan, originally from North Central Hawthorne, Florida, is not much bigger than Harlowe, where he now lives. He was stationed at Cherry Point in 2001 and just never left after he separated from the Marine Corps. Rebecca, his partner, grew up in Florida but spent summer vacations at the beach in Eastern North Carolina.
Ryan said his day job was pretty sedentary, and it was taking its toll on him physically. He visited with a nutritionist who helped him understand portion control and helped him figure out how to include better things in his diet and remove some less valuable items. She got him to do simple things like add spinach to his eggs in the morning and use kale instead of lettuce for his sandwiches. In including these greens, he wanted to grow them rather than buy them. He had always been into gardening, so he took a swing at producing it. You could say that necessity pushes you to uncover your potential and make changes in your life.
Ryan said, “What I learned was that every bug in North Carolina loves to eat greens as well! I also struggled with my soil as it wasn't the greatest. I didn't want to use commercial fertilizer or pesticides, so I was kind of stuck. Then I stumbled into hydroponics and went down a rabbit hole on the internet. At the end of the rabbit hole, I built a small deep water culture system in the house and started growing my own. From there, I increased the size of my systems, eventually building a full greenhouse dedicated to greens production. Out of necessity came a business. At the same time I was building the greenhouse, I added Microgreens to the products I produce. Microgreens quickly became the backbone of our operation. Since then, I've spent a lot of time learning about soil biology and solving many of the issues I had when growing my traditional gardens in the past. As a result, we have added two small plots to raise ground crops on. Using the different techniques and working to increase soil biology has greatly increased my production and relieved many of the issues I struggled with in the past. Each of the three areas we produce in all have their place and purpose.”
Ryan and Rebecca’s business is multifaceted. They have the Hydroponic Greenhouse, Microgreen Production room, and Market Garden Beds. Each kind of grew in and of itself and complemented one another. Ryan did a feasibility study on running a purely hydroponic farm and found that he would need a structure much more extensive than he could afford to make a go of it full time. So, he worked within the means he had, built what he could with plans of expanding later, which they have been trying to do this year. Microgreen production is really where the work gets done for them; they have a shorter growth cycle and a higher demand, so they spend a lot more time on those. Last year, they began testing different crops in the market garden to determine where the interest was, what was viable to grow and what wasn't. This year, with some refined tooling and a sound footing for the market preferences, they feel they will increase their production and make it more consistent.
The business itself grew somewhat organically. Ryan began by giving away his extra greens from his "science project" and eventually got picked up by a restaurant in Morehead City. It was a short-lived experience with them, but it was enough to get his wheels turning and motivated him to become a farmer. Ryan says, “I just really enjoy seeing people consume and enjoy our products! My favorite part is seeing our products used by local Chefs and our other clients when they post them on social media. That's how I know what we have worked so hard for has made it to its final stage. It just kind of comes full circle. Also, getting people to try new things at the farmer’s market. You get to see their reactions to new foods and talk to them about how to use them in their daily diets.”
Hydroponics is a unique way of growing that allows them to produce more with less space and less water waste. Educating the public and opening their minds to the various flavors is a reward in itself. They also grow to order for the Chefs to get the freshest product possible and get exactly what they need for pairing with special plates.
Ryan has found that the community here is exceptionally inviting of small farmers. Without them, they wouldn’t be in business. Time and again, the community has shown up to support the local farmers, even amid a pandemic when the media was doing its best to make people scared of one another. Ryan says, “We couldn’t be more grateful for our customers, Chefs, and local store owners that have not only supported us but helped and encouraged us to grow as much as we have.”
Visit their website at Where you can find Harlowe Custom Micro’s – Harlowe Custom Microgreens and Hydroponics to find out more. You can find them at the following markets: Olde Beaufort Farmers Market, Coastal Community Market, Island Produce, The Market at Cedar Point, and Cypress Hall, to name a few. Some of the restaurants you can taste their goods are Moonrakers, Beaufort Grocery, Clawsons, Inn on Turner Street, Floyds 1921, and Parrot on 11th.
Rebecca Jones is a contract writer for the Carteret News-Times and the newest member of the Carteret Local Food Network blog writing team. She was born and raised in the Piedmont Triad area where she spent most of her life. She has two grown children and 6 grandchildren. Writing has always been a part of her life and she believes that it is a way to showcase and bring awareness to events that affect your community. In April of 2018, Rebecca and her husband George moved to Beaufort, NC. Her most recent two books, Love Brings You Home (about Hurricane Florence) and Go Deep (a devotional with photos), are sold locally and on Amazon.