On a deepest, coldest, darkest night in winter, a person driving the along unlit Route 22 near Salem or exploring the back roads of Shushan in Washington County might wonder about the glow in the sky or the bright lights up ahead on Juniper Swamp Road. If newcomers inquire at Yushak’s store in Shushan, they’ll learn the glow comes from the 18,000 square feet of greenhouses where Wayne and Phyllis Underwood grow hydroponic tomatoes, herbs, greens, and cucumbers at Shushan Valley Hydro Farm.
It feels like spring all winter inside those houses. Phyllis explained, “The tomato plants grow to 45 feet long on elaborate trellises from the time they begin to bear in October until the season ends in early July.” The aromas of basil, thyme and other herbs fill another greenhouse where greens like lettuce and arugula also grow, and cucumbers fill the third.
Customers at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market can enjoy these summer-time treats from fall through winter and into early summer. They can make salads and sauces, such a Caprese salad from the farm’s locally grown super-fresh tomatoes, basil, and Argyle Cheese Farmer mozzarella, dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. They will know that the hydroponically grown vegetables and herbs are free of herbicides and pesticides. And as Phyllis explains, “The eco-footprint of our operation is much less than for the same ingredients shipped to New York from Mexico or California.”
Wayne and Phyllis were not always farmers and nor were they always in this vegetable business, but their own roots are in Washington County. Although Wayne’s parents had been farmers, they sold out when he was four years old. Drawn to farming, Wayne would visit neighbors and eventually worked on some farms. Phyllis’ father had hobby farm to provide good food for the family. Together Wayne and Phyllis rented a dairy farm in Fort Edward, and soon began searching for a place of their own.
One day in 1983, long before Shushan became an in-place to live or to start a farm, a realtor took them along Juniper Swamp Road. “Grass was growing up the middle,” Phyllis remembers, “And I thought, ‘Where are you taking me?’” They settled into the 200-acre farm, and had the dairy for five years.
When they realized that the dairy farm wasn’t going to work out for them, they again began scouting for another farming enterprise. Around that time they took the kids to Disney World and Epcot Center. On a behind-the-scenes tour at Epcot, they saw vegetables growing hydroponically in greenhouses, with the roots in nutrient solution and the greenery pointing toward the sun.
Soon the Underwoods were taking workshops, building greenhouses, buying supplies, planting summer crops at the end of the summer, and marketing the products first to wholesale customers, and today at several farmers’ markets. “Talking to customers at farmers’ markets and providing them with quality, healthy, locally grown products is the most rewarding,” according to Phyllis.
The greenhouses occupy only a small portion of the 200 acres, which Wayne and Phyllis still own. Now they let other farmers use some hay and pasture land and they raise Japanese larch and red pine on about 50 acres. The hydroponic vegetable business has grown enough that five other family members also work on the farm.
Becky Dennison, Phyllis’ niece, is the face of the farm at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market, the second farmers’ market the Underwoods joined. Talk to Becky; she’ll tell you all you need to know about the farm and the veggies.
Creamy Tomato Soup
(Serves 6. From start to finish, this soup takes only 35 minutes to prepare. Ingredients marked with * are available at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market.)
What to use
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion *
2 cloves garlic *
3 large stalks fresh Shushan Select basil *
1 sprig of fresh Shushan Select thyme *
1 bay leaf
2½ tsp tomato paste
2 lbs. ripe Shushan Select tomatoes * cored cut into quarters
Pinch of sugar
1 cup chicken stock (either purchased or homemade from market soup chickens *)
⅓ cup Battenkill Valley Creamery heavy cream *
Parmesan cheese from Longview Farm, grated *
Croutons made from Mrs. London’s or Murray Hollow bread *
How to make it
Separate the basil leaves from the stems, cut into a chiffonade (very thin slices across the leaves) and reserve.
Slice the onions and mince the garlic and basil stalks.
Heat the olive oil in large pan. Cook the onion 3 minutes, then add the minced garlic and basil stalks, along with the thyme, bay leaf, tomato paste, and fresh tomatoes.
Season with salt, pepper and sugar, pour in chicken stock, bring to boil cover, and simmer for 15 minutes.
Discard the bay leaf and puree the rest of the soup. Add the heavy cream and reheat but do not boil.
Serve in warmed bowls, and top with basil and cheese, and optional croutons.