From the heart: Hydro Harvest Farms offers help to struggling families, kids

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

During August, John and Terrie Lawson of Hydro Harvest Farms are offering fresh fruits and vegetables at 50 percent off for struggling families. Existing customers are also recognized, with a 50-percent-off coupon sent via their August email newsletter. Mitch Traphagen photos.

During August, John and Terrie Lawson of Hydro Harvest Farms are offering fresh fruits and vegetables at 50 percent off for struggling families. Existing customers are also recognized, with a 50-percent-off coupon sent via their August email newsletter. Mitch Traphagen photos.

It would be a rare thing to walk into Hydro Harvest Farms in the heart of Ruskin and not find John Lawson with a smile, or to hear his hearty laugh. His livelihood is fraught with risk; it is at the mercy of the elements and nature. And unlike traditional farmers who generally have one crop to worry about during the growing seasons, Lawson may have a dozen different crops to tend to — each with different needs and on different schedules. Each season, almost every day, is like a roll of the dice. They are farming professionals but nature is difficult to control.

But still he smiles, he laughs. But even more than that, he cares. Deeply.

Among his many passions, when the hearty laughter fades to seriousness, is an ingrained desire to ensure that children, particularly those in need, have access to fresh, nutritional food.

During August, John Lawson and his wife Terrie are trying to make it easier for families to get nutritious food by offering a 50 percent discount on all fresh fruits and vegetables available at Hydro Harvest Farms. The discount is geared for families in need, using EBT or the SNAP program for food assistance, but the Lawsons also show their appreciation for their regular customers.

The hydroponic farm in the heart of Ruskin may appear small by farm standards, but it produces a bounty of fresh food. The Lawsons are doing what they can to share that bounty.

The hydroponic farm in the heart of Ruskin may appear small by farm standards, but it produces a bounty of fresh food. The Lawsons are doing what they can to share that bounty.

“Back a few years ago, we realized that at least one in six school-aged kids are on some form of assistance for food,” Lawson said. “For some of these kids, the only decent meal they get is what they get at school. But because they aren’t in school over the summer, their parents’ EBT funds can easily be depleted — especially in August, when they also have to buy school supplies: pencils, backpacks, clothes and all of that.”

So with August posing a potentially significant financial burden for struggling families — families that may have to choose between having enough proper food and paying for school supplies — beginning several years ago, the Lawsons decided to help.

“We thought that, for the month of August, we could give anyone who uses EBT or SNAP 50 percent off on fresh fruits and vegetables to help give them a hand to get these kids back in school,” he said. “But we didn’t want to leave our regular customers out of it. If they receive our email, which most of our customers do, there are coupons in the August email with which they can also get 50 percent off of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The steep discount offered by the Lawsons is not the result of a grant or a program of any sort. It is coming entirely out of their own pockets.

John Lawson, owner of Hydro Harvest Farms, helps a customer pick out the best and freshest possible okra.

John Lawson, owner of Hydro Harvest Farms, helps a customer pick out the best and freshest
possible okra.

“I wish we could be more generous,” he said. “And I really wish more people would take advantage of it. For us, it lets people know that we do take EBT. A lot of people who receive EBT money don’t realize that they can use EBT here and at many farm stands. They don’t need to buy all of that processed stuff, they can buy fresh food.”

The farm is hydroponic. In addition to the many fresh vegetables they grow and sell, they also offer a wide array of canned and jarred produce (writer’s opinion: the mango, pineapple, jalapeño jam with cream cheese is to die for), local honey and more. Due to costs involved, however, only the fresh fruits and vegetables are offered at the 50 percent discount.

They also offer hydroponic supplies so people can grow their own fresh produce.

“With the price of groceries these days, I don’t know why everyone isn’t growing their own vegetables with hydroponics,” Lawson said.

In eight or so months, the chicks will be producing farm fresh eggs. “You can hear them chirp inside of the eggs,” Lawson said.

In eight or so months, the chicks will be producing farm fresh eggs. “You can hear them chirp inside of the eggs,” Lawson said.

Hydro Harvest Farms, in the heart of Ruskin, is a small farm by some standards but produces an incredible bounty. And each year, the Lawsons do what they can to share that bounty. Inside the main building are several chicks — and eggs that will soon produce chicks. Eight or more months from now, those chicks will be providing farm fresh eggs.

Lawson picked up one brand-new, soft and fluffy chick, running among the eggs in a warming crate. “You can hear them chirp from inside the eggs,” he said warmly.

A customer came in asking for some fresh okra and Lawson walked her out to the hydroponic stands to help her pick the best of the best. No vegetable could be more fresh than that. And it is just that — real food, fresh food, that he hopes to share with struggling families and also his existing customers. It comes at a cost to him financially but not to him personally. It seems to feed his soul.

Along with this August discount, each year Lawson offers a pumpkin patch. While the large pumpkins are available for sale, the pumpkin patch is entirely free for parents and their kids — and the photo opportunities are wonderful. And so it is, too, for the free Christmas programs they offer at the farm in December. A large man with a white beard and a hearty laugh, Lawson is on very good terms with Santa Claus, who does visit for children each year — again, free of charge for families who visit. John and Terrie Lawson are people who care.

“We’re trying to emphasize the fact that we and other farm stands accept EBT and right now we are trying to help the kids, to help their families here at the end of the summer, especially with all of the back-to-school expenses,” he said again.

And then he paused for a moment.

“Wouldn’t it be great if some of the really big stores would do this?”

Hydro Harvest Farms is at 1101 East Shell Point Road in Ruskin. For more information or to receive their monthly email newsletter, visit www.hydroharvestfarms.com.

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