Hydroponics — growing plants using liquid nutrients, usually without an earth-based medium — is a form of indoor gardening associated with certain stereotypes, acknowledged Matt Wolfel, owner of Indoor Garden Supply in south Springfield.
Which stereotype might that be?
“Well, that this type of business is just for cannabis-growing,” Wolfel said. That impression was stronger among Springfield residents when he started operating, in 2014.
When U.S. states add legal medical marijuana, hydroponics stores generally see a bump of increased attention and interest, Wolfel said.
“Some people that have never had a garden before will come in,” he said.
‘You could grow tropical plants in Missouri’
But hydroponics is not a world made up entirely of weed, and Amendment 2 didn’t change his business very much, even though new customers came through the doors. They had already been spreading the word about indoor gardening.
“You can grow anything indoors you could grow outdoors, and then some,” Wolfel explained. “You could grow tropical plants in Missouri.”
That variability allowed the business to develop at a time when medical marijuana wasn’t yet on the horizon for Missouri.
Tucked on a side street between Sunshine and Seminole, Wolfel’s shop celebrates its sixth year in April. He’s proud to call it the longest-running store of its kind in Springfield.
Two other Springfield hydroponics shops currently show up in directories like Google Maps: Harvest Grow Supply and American Grower’s Supply, both located on the north side of town.
Missouri Secretary of State records show that both of the newer stores filed registration forms in November 2018, weeks after voters approved medical marijuana through Amendment 2. Other local stores have popped up, then disappeared not long afterward.
But Wolfel had a head start on them, returning to Springfield from a seven-year stint in Colorado in 2012 before opening Indoor Garden Supply.
Last year, he worked with a group of investors on a separate venture, Sho Me Kanah, that sought a cannabis cultivation license from the Missouri health department for a facility they hoped to locate in the Highlandville area. Despite earning a high score on their application, they were turned down when licenses were awarded shortly after Christmas.
“That was a big roller coaster,” he said.
But he’s disappointed, not distressed, about it. He said he and his business partners submitted a good application, which stays on file with state authorities for roughly a year. If the Missouri medical marijuana program decides to increase the number of cultivation licenses above the 60-license minimum, Sho Me Kanah might have a good chance at getting approved in the future.
“(Missouri health department authorities) have given themselves an opportunity to look at the marketplace once it’s been established … and then fill in some of the gaps,” he said.
Along the licensing journey, Wolfel earned respect from folks in Missouri’s pro-cannabis camp.
“He’s a good dude,” Josh Loftis told the News-Leader recently when asked about Wolfel and his operation. Loftis owns Home Grow Solutions Missouri, which consults with lawful medical marijuana patients who have state approval to grow their own weed.
“I was impressed with his shop’s inventory and his know-how,” Loftis added.
As Wolfel worked to set up a $170 indoor grow tent for display on Thursday morning, he told the News-Leader that with or without new cannabis laws, interest in hydroponics keeps growing. Six years’ experience has shown Springfield can support multiple hydroponics retail outfits, in his view, and that his company can “outlast” potential competitors.
“The first year, we had no experience as far as any kind of customer base in the city,” Wolfel said. “So no, I didn’t have any idea how it would go. It was very slow in the beginning, just getting customers in. We’re kind of out of the way, and we didn’t have a lot of money for advertising.”
They’re still creative with advertising. Wolfel recently parked the company truck, emblazoned with a bright-blue vehicle wrap with “HYDROPONICS” in giant lettering, as close to the entrance of the annual Sertoma Chili Cook Off as possible, figuring thousands of people would see it.
He also developed a customer base over time by emphasizing education about indoor gardening. Wolfel and his wife, Dawn Lawrence Wolfel (who also manages the business), said they became active with a number of outside groups: Master Gardeners, Friends of the Garden, Missouri State University, churches, public and private schools and others. They started a group on Meetup.com, which now has more than 360 members, to offer free classes.
“We made it a point to really reach out to other parts of the community,” Wolfel said. “That whole process was built over years.”
Hydroponics not just used for cannabis plants
And when cannabis wasn’t yet lawful, customers came to the Wolfels for another reason: Transplant season.
March, he said, is the store’s biggest month of the year.
Because hydroponic setups allow for controlling light, heat, humidity, nutrients, pH balance and other factors, the indoor gardener “becomes the natural world” as far as the plants being grown are concerned, Wolfel said.
This allows for people to start seedlings indoors in March or earlier, then transplant them outdoors after the last frost takes place, he said. It’s a way to beat the calendar compared to buying plants from springtime garden sections at big box stores. It’s also a way to foster rare and non-genetically modified plants. To that end, Indoor Garden Supply works with suppliers like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Wolfel explained.
The capabilities of these highly technical nutrient systems mean that growers can not only get seedlings ready for the ground on an accelerated time frame, but they can often conserve water, Wolfel said.
“It can be completely automated, too,” he said as he and his wife showed off shelf after shelf of seed-starting kits, lights, trays, ductwork, fans, soil, growth media and even a case full of digital controls for indoor gardening setups — think timers, CO2 systems, pH testers, water pumps and even miniature microscopes allowing growers to check plants for tiny pests.
Indoor gardening is complicated. But hydroponics — the term, a mix of the Greek words for “water” and “labor,” originated in the 1930s — could be poised for significant growth in the future given challenges like water supply and climate change, Wolfel acknowledged.
“Yeah, it’s very new,” he said. “It’s a nontraditional cultivation technique that’s becoming traditional. It’s becoming very common.”
Indoor Garden Supply is located at 1852 S. Stewart Ave., between Sunshine and Seminole streets. Search the company name to find its Facebook page, which includes information on free classes offered through the Springfield Hydroponic Gardening Meetup and store anniversary events. Harvest Grow Supply, 1332 N. Glenstone Ave., is also on Facebook, available by searching company name, as is American Grower’s Supply, 810 W. Kearney St.
Gregory Holman is a reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org and consider supporting vital local journalism by subscribing. Learn more by visiting News-Leader.com/subscribe.
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