In Hopkinton, watch it grow, then order it for lunch – The Boston Globe

Hopkinton — Even on a bitterly cold day, the greenhouse at Water Fresh Farm feels like the tropics. In the nearly half-acre space, where row upon row of beefsteak tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, lettuces, spinach, and herbs grow hydroponically, the temperature is warm and the air is humid — delightfully so.

Most visitors don’t get to spend a lot of time in the greenhouse. But a lucky few can enjoy the microclimate on the deck that serves as a bridge between that growing area and the attached Water Fresh Market that opened in 2012 to serve people who live in the community and beyond. A built-in wooden bench spans the length of the 20- by 12-foot expanse and a handful of tables seat customers, who can bring sandwiches and other items from the bakery and deli counter inside. A comfortable cafe area inside has more than double the room.

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Childhood friends Jeff Barton and Phil Todaro built Water Fresh Farm in 1997, while both were pursuing other careers — Barton in the software industry and Todaro in consumer products. When they first heard about hydroponics, a soil-free growing method, “We thought here was a business opportunity to service the local community, before there was a local movement,” Barton explains. The two spent a couple of years researching the system, then they took a course on hydroponic growing at the University of Arizona under Merle Jensen, a leader in the field. When they decided to open their farm, Jensen agreed to act as a mentor and consultant. Now retired, he is still a close friend.

Through the hydroponic process, plants can be grown indoors, which allows them to thrive even in climates, like ours, that are not friendly to year-round growth. Plants receive their mineral nutrients directly through the water. The planting medium at Water Fresh Farm is rockwool, a soft, porous fiber that is common for hydroponic growing.

Water Fresh’s farmers have tweaked the nutrients to come up with what Barton terms their “secret sauce.” In the beginning, they used industry mixes. But over time they noticed, for example, a nitrogen deficiency in the leaves of the tomato plants. So they started playing around and created their own mix. “There’s a direct relationship between the sweetness of a tomato and the minerals in the base,” Barton says.” They have a different “recipe” for tomatoes as seedlings, flowers, and plants. These are “optimized for stages of development and times of year,” Barton explains, “to get the plant what it needs when it needs it.” A father of two (Barton’s daughters are 20 and 22), he likens it to feeding infants, toddlers, and children differently, depending on their needs at those ages.

1/21/15 Hopkinton, MA -- From left, Annie Hale of Holliston, Bonnie Weigl of Southboro and Bev McCloskey of Holliston have lunch in the greenhouse at Water Fresh Farm January 21, 2015. Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe

Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe

From left: Annie Hale of Holliston, Bonnie Weigl of Southboro, and Bev McCloskey of Holliston enjoying lunch on the deck overlooking the greenhouse.

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Though the plants are not organic, they are pesticide-free, which does not mean that pests are not an issue. The farmers employ beneficial insects, in the form of tiny wasps and mites, to control the whiteflies that could harm the tomato plants and thrip that thrive on cucumbers.

1/21/15 Hopkinton, MA -- A variety of bibb lettuce, growing in a hydroponic pond at Water Fresh Farm in Hopkinton January 21, 2015. Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe

Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe

Bibb lettuce growing in a hydroponic pond at the farm.

In 2010, Barton left the software industry to focus full-time on the farm. They built Water Fresh Market, attached to the greenhouse, in 2011 and opened it the following year. “When we started, our goal was to grow a salad. Now we want to offer it,” Barton explains. On a midweek afternoon, all the seats in the cafe area of the airy, barn-like structure are filled and there is a line of people waiting to order sandwiches at the deli counter. The retail section offers local produce, much of it grown onsite, fresh fish, meat, artisanal products from local venders, craft beer, and wine. “It was designed to be like a European marketplace,” Barton says. “People come in four or five times a week. It’s changing people’s behavior, how they buy food.”

The market also has a significant prepared foods section, overseen by the farm’s resident chef. Every day there is a selection of fully cooked meals available in the refrigerator case as well as hot meals, sold as Farm Dinners. There are three daily options that Barton describes as “comfort food, and we push it a little.”

In April, the owners will “plant” a solar farm on a nearly an acre of land behind the greenhouse. During the winter there is not enough natural light for the plants to grow without supplemental light and providing that for the entire greenhouse has been too expensive. Electricity generated by the solar panels will enable them to light the whole space through the winter, which will help increase the farm’s yields.

Water Fresh Market’s bright deck is a popular spot for community events. A poetry group meets there once a month for lunch; the local Girl Scouts troop gathers in the sunny space, as does the Lion’s Club. Looking into the greenhouse from a table, Barton notes, “They can see all this being grown, and sit next to it.”

Short of getting on a plane, there are few more tempting escapes from what’s outside this winter.

Water Fresh Market

151 Hayden Rowe St., Hopkinton, 508-435-3400, www.waterfreshfarm.com

Andrea Pyenson can be reached at [email protected]

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