Off the side of a two-lane road near Old Town Lewisville sits a 220-square-foot greenhouse.
Inside of it are a lot of vegetables. And a big dream.
The greenhouse, located on one plot at the Rich Lubke Community Organic Garden, serves as the first phase of the Veterans Produce Foundation, a nonprofit that Lewisville resident T.C. Beckett began about a year ago.
Veterans Produce’s mission is twofold – to grow produce to give to the homeless veterans and to those who are food insecure in Denton County, as well as to provide training to teach homeless veterans how to grow their own food.
Beckett, a retired Navy chief, said the idea came to him after getting to know a local homeless veteran named Tony.
“Tony and I developed a relationship,” Beckett said. “I offered to feed him, and that just festered in me. Why don’t I start doing something? So I adopted the land, and I built this. This has to do with Tony, but there are a lot of others I can do this for.”
And with the system Beckett has in place, he’s prepared to help them all.
How it works
Veterans Produce maximizes the relatively small area – 96 square feet of growing space – the greenhouse takes up. Inside the greenhouse Beckett has two plant beds with approximately 200 plants. Most of the plants are different types of lettuce, though he dabbles in tomatoes, basil and peppers.
He said one bed of 100-120 heads of Romaine lettuce, for example, could feed 200-250 people.
What the greenhouse doesn’t have is soil. Beckett uses a form of hydroponics, or water-based planting, called aquaponics, a practice that uses fish water.
The system relies heavily on the byproduct of fish, which is ammonia. The ammonia breaks down when it’s exposed to air, and that creates nitrites and nitrates, which the plants eat.
The filtered fish water is ultimately pumped to the bottom of each grow bed, where the roots of each plant are submerged. He said that allows the nutrients to get to the roots faster.
“We can grow eight to 10 times more food 30 percent faster,” Beckett said, adding that dissolved oxygen helps in the process.
Beckett also uses a mixing tank to add other nutrients to help certain vegetables grow better.
Beckett said the process also makes the food more nutritional. He said food that is harvested from the ground gets cut at the base. But he said by using a water culture the entire lettuce plant is harvested, allowing it to stay alive for a couple of weeks longer.
“It’s 46 percent more nutritional,” Beckett said.
Another advantage of the system, Beckett said, is that all 950 gallons of the water used in the system recirculates, so Veterans Produce uses 90 percent less water than soil-based systems.
For Kenny Smith, who, along with Jeremy Chio founded Veterans Produce with Beckett, the numbers were too great to ignore.
“As a veteran myself, I wanted to find a way to give back,” Smith said. “We're able to grow food at a larger quantity and on a smaller footprint and get those to veterans in need.”
The second phase of Veterans Produce is underway. The organization broke ground last week on a project that will expand its greenhouse by 240 square feet, providing six more plant beds. Beckett said that will result in 600 more plants, or three times more food.
Beckett said Veterans Produce has donated a portion of the food to the Salvation Army of Denton County, and it’s in talks with other organizations and food banks.
“There’s a growing demand for fresh produce at food banks,” Beckett said.
While Veterans Produce is new, Beckett has been using aquaponics for about six years at his business, No Dirt Required, which grows organic food at remote locations.
“I’m a farmer from Indiana, so I know how hard it is to grow food in a garden,” Beckett said. “The benefits are substantial.”
Beckett describes his organization as veteran built, volunteer run. But he said there is a need for more volunteers, as well as funds and supplies. He said he has already spent $3,000 on the effort.
While aquaponics saves on the cost of water and soil, the plants and the infrastructure needed cost money.
And through the process he hopes to educate people about the homeless veteran population.
“I want people to know about the need to serve the veterans,” Beckett said. “Fifteen percent of the homeless are veterans. And female veterans are the fastest-growing sector of the homeless. That’s why I’m focusing on the veterans.”
Beckett sees his efforts stretching beyond Denton County and even into other states. He plans to organize veteran groups to build these types of community aquaponics gardens in cities where there is a heavy homeless veteran population.
“I want to build as close as where the need exists,” Beckett said.
Beckett said the Lewisville garden will serve as a model for others across the state.
For more information go to veteransproduce.org.