Lowell — Senior David Johnston has made an oasis for himself in one of the greenhouses at the Wittenbach/Wege Agriscience & Environmental Education Center.
On the coldest and grayest of Michigan days, stepping inside his hydroponics and microgreens production greenhouse feels like a vacation to the tropics.
Sure, the greenery is an assortment of kale, butter lettuce, chives and other edible plants. The relaxing sound of water is coming from the aquaponics tank. And the warmth is largely from grow lights, not the elusive Michigan sun. But it’s idyllic all the same.
Listen to David Johnston talk about his agribusiness on WGVU News.
David didn’t take over a greenhouse just to have a slice of heaven during the Michigan winters, though. It’s a part of his business, Céva Farm — shoutout and a wink to Tolkein fans —, where he grows and sells organic, pesticide-free greens.
“I like to look at this and go, ‘This was empty not that long ago,’” he reflected. “It’s nice that you see results.”
Most recently, the results have included harvests of microgreens, which are small, sprouted greens that are nutritious and delicious.
“It’s a hot thing on the market, so I tried my hand at it,” David explained.
Weeks — sometimes months — of preparation go into a harvest. Ultimately, David’s microgreens find themselves in 1.5-ounce containers distributed throughout the community.
“I’d love to sell them to bigger companies who want them, but I don’t have enough produce going out yet where I can be a solid supplier. I plan on it, though.”
In the last year, David has turned his dream into a business, but his passion started years ago.
The Origin of the Dream
David’s first memory of growing food was buying a bunch of potatoes from a local farm and planting them alongside his dad in their backyard.
“I thought it was so cool: we threw food in the ground and more food came out,” he said.
When he started his freshman year, David took his interest in plants into Kevin Nugent’s agriculture biology class. The next year, he again signed up for a class with Nugent. This time, it was plant science.
‘I like to say my class kind of kicked him off, but it’s the Tech Center where he’s probably picked up the most knowledge of how to run the hydroponic system and do a lot of the research he’s done.’— Kevin Nugent, science teacher and FFA leader
As a junior, David became president of the school’s FFA club and took classes at Kent Career Technical Center for a more in-depth exploration of agriculture.
“At the Tech Center they get to do a lot more hands-on projects and in-depth with the horticulture world,” explained Nugent. “I like to say my class kind of kicked him off, but it’s the Tech Center where he’s probably picked up the most knowledge of how to run the hydroponic system and do a lot of the research he’s done.”
Learning the Business
David’s education and personal research have led him to learn new techniques to increase the array of products he offers.
He started by taking over the empty hydroponic tanks and growing different kinds of lettuce.
Before long, he was cleaning and reassembling the aquaponics tank in which to start some of his plants. To make that possible, he researched best practices for maintaining water quality and fish health.
Then came the microgreens. He had to learn how to create the ideal set-up to achieve optimal growth and flavor.
‘I thought it was so cool: we threw food in the ground and more food came out’— David Johnston, senior
Throughout the process, David said, he has done a significant amount of problem-solving as different issues seemed to pop up.
One of the biggest sources of frustration was the aquaponics tank — needed for a symbiotic growth cycle — and ensuring both the fish and plants were thriving.
“It was an effort,” he said. “I have to always be on (proper levels of) pH, because it controls a lot of factors on how well everything does, so I try to keep it around 5.5. I’ve found that’s the best spot for both parties.”
Of course, a knowledge of horticulture is essential for running Céva Farm, but he’s also been learning lessons in other areas throughout the process.
For example, the agreement he made with Nugent included paying rent to operate out of the greenhouse, and David must ensure his profits cover his expenses. To accomplish that goal, he’s had to work on marketing and spreading awareness of the brand.
A Future in Agriculture
David will graduate this spring from Lowell High School and start taking classes through Michigan State University’s Institute of Agriculture Technology satellite program on the campus of Montcalm Community College.
His goal is to one day find a full-time job in the agriculture or horticulture field, but he doesn’t anticipate Céva Farm becoming more than a life-long “side thing that I can do,” David said.
For now, that means continuing to rent a greenhouse at the Wittenbach Center and selling his produce to the community. He also hopes to branch out into different types of produce, such as carrots or cucumbers.
“(Carrots) are self-cleaning,” he continued. “You don’t have to use rocks or anything, just this special tube that goes all the way down into the water. When you pull it out, it’s a perfectly clean, big carrot.”
To learn more about what produce David currently has available and track what he grows next, follow Céva Farm’s Facebook page.