New Day Hydroponics Grows With the Flow
The roots of the Yohnka family tree run deep into the fertile soil of northern Illinois where generations tilled and harvested. But Tim Yohnka had to find a new way to farm if he wanted to remain in the family business.
“Farming’s been in my family a long time, but there was not enough land for me to come on as a full-time farmer,” says Yohnka, who grew up on the 1,400-acre family farm in Momence. “I had to find a way to diversify the farm.”
A seed planted in high school would soon become his strategy: hydroponics.
Yohnka first became fascinated by hydroponics – where crops grow in nutrient-rich water rather than soil – in his high school’s FFA program and later studied the subject at Illinois State University.
And he knew exactly how to make it happen.
“We had a 50-year-old hog building that was just collecting junk, so I decided to convert it into a growhouse,” Yohnka says. “Mom and Dad loved the idea.”
After graduating with an agronomy degree in 2012, he began the hard work of transforming that hog house into a growhouse.
“Converting the building was not easy by any means,” Yohnka says. “We took the pens out, built a wall, added insulation and heat and new T5 fluorescent lighting.”
Next, he began experimenting to learn which crops would best grow with the flow.
“In my opinion, basil is easiest to grow, but I didn’t have a very good time with spinach,” he says. “My next experiment will probably be strawberries.”
During those experiments, lettuce – along with basil and cilantro – emerged as stars.
“The leaf is a lot more tender, and I think it has a better flavor,” Yohnka says of his hydroponic lettuce.
By spring of 2013, Yohnka had delivered his first batch of produce to the local farmers’ market.
“The Kankakee farmers’ market helped get my name out there,” he says. “We’ve gotten kind of a following. People like the hydroponic products.”
As luck would have it, one of those people turned out to be the produce manager at Ultra Foods in Kankakee, which soon began carrying Yohnka’s hydroponic basil.
Word continued to spread, and today New Day Hydroponics makes weekly deliveries to six stores in northern Illinois and northwest Indiana.
Yohnka harvests about 150 to 200 plants a week in a growing season that never ends.
“We can grow all year round,” he says. “There are really no seasons in a growhouse.”
The process begins by planting seeds in rockwool, a growing medium made from molten rock. Once the seeds germinate, Yohnka transplants the plug with exposed roots into grow trays. Using the nutrient film technique, his hydroponic system continuously pumps a shallow stream of nutrient-rich water from a tank through the trays to deliver nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and micronutrients directly to the bare roots of the plants.
Because a drainpipe recycles unused nutrient solution, hydroponics uses far less water than traditional farming – up to 90 percent less by some estimates.
The approach also requires less labor. According to Yohnka, after transplanting the plugs, “We don’t touch the plant until harvest about seven weeks later.”
Hydroponics offers a controlled environment that virtually eliminates risks associated with severe weather, pests and disease.
“Hydroponic plants are a lot cleaner than field-grown – there is very little pest damage,” says Yohnka, who admires the efficiency of hydroponics. “It cuts out everything the plant doesn’t need.”
A New Day for Family Farm
From planting and harvesting to packaging and delivering, New Day Hydroponics is a multigenerational venture. Yohnka runs the operation with the help of his parents, Keith and Lisa, sister, Laura, grandfather, Charles “Bud” Yohnka, and fiancée, Kaliegh.
In a lasting contribution, his late maternal grandfather Norm Burgdorf – inspired by the dawn of a fresh October day – settled much debate on the business name.
“My grandpa called one morning and said, ‘What about New Day Hydroponics?’ ” Yohnka recalls.
While his hydroponic plants grow quickly, Yohnka prefers slow and steady business growth.
“We’re always looking for more, but I take to heart the idea that slow growth is the best growth,” says Yohnka, who views the business as a work in progress. “There is always a learning curve. I learn something new every day.”