Tucked in the very back corner on Firefly Distillery’s grassy lawn sits a next-generation hydroponic farm inside a shipping container: King Tide Farms, owned and operated by lifelong Charlestonian Hamilton Horne.
The near shutdown and delay of transportation and production in the country during the pandemic led Horne to a realization about the state of produce. Food shortages, the lack of transparency about where produce originates (90% of leafy greens come from California and Arizona, according to Horne) and nutrients lost during transportation drove him into researching hydroponics.
For the next two years, Horne spent countless hours studying hydroponic farms, different vegetables and the logistics of running a farm out of a shipping container, including the constraints, the possibilities and the benefits to local restaurants and chefs.
Prior to this, Horne never really knew what he wanted to do. He worked odd jobs as a line cook in several restaurants, went to the University of Mississippi for a business degree, worked in agricultural chemical sales for three years and as a real estate agent for more than a decade.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Horne said. “And I’ve spent so many years trying to figure out something to do. I tried to do an oyster farm; tried to do a mushroom farm back before it was cool … And then finally, during Covid, I was like, ‘You know, something’s gotta change. I gotta change it. I gotta do it. If now’s not the time, then when is?’ And then it just all hit perfectly.”
How exactly does a hydroponic farm work? Well for Horne, King Tide isn’t a traditional hydroponic farm:
“Hydroponic farming means grown in water, so that’s going to be the big thing,” Horne explained. “We’re kind of a mix between it. We are a hydroponic smart farm inside of a shipping container.
“It’s a little bit of hydroponics, but it’s not fully submerged in water at all times.”
Smart farming, according to Horne, is having complete control over the environment in the shipping container. Everything from lighting, air temperature, carbon dioxide levels, humidity, nutrients, water temperature and more are controlled by Horne. He learned this method from Freight Farms in Boston, when researching hydroponic farming methods, where he also purchased his shipping container.
Once he secured a permanent location for his shipping container at Firefly, Horne spent months perfecting a product he could stand behind. By the end of May, King Tide Farms officially launched and sold to local businesses, including recently opened Cold Shoulder Gourmet, Sushi Ninja and Red Drum, to name a few.
What grows inside King Tide’s shipping container will be different from what other local hydroponic farm Vertical Roots is growing, Horne said.
“I can’t compete with Vertical Roots,” he added. “They’re crushing it. I would say I’m more of a salad mix guy, or more specifically, I can offer you components for your current salad mix. So that’s where I think I can have something that uplifts that meal if you’re missing one last ingredient to tie your dish together.”
King Tide grows vegetables one may have never tried or even heard of. For example, wasabi arugula — one leaf from the plant gives that sharpness of wasabi and disappears, a hit-and-run of spice to the tongue. Another is borage, a fuzzy, leafy plant that, when eaten, tastes exactly like a cucumber, and the red vein sorrel, a plant that can add citrus flavors to any salad mix. And for those who love the taste of cilantro, King Tide grows culantro, which has a longer leaf and a stronger flavor. Some Asian herbs are also grown in the container, too. Find plants like red shiso, Thai basil and mizuna.
If you’re looking for microgreens, King Tide has those, too. He offers microgreens of borage, melon, shiso, onion, kale, broccoli and more.
To sum up the entire farm, Horne said, “the best word to describe us is custom; I can custom harvest; I can custom grow; I can change the lights in here to alter colors. I can just do so many different things to alter it and I can custom any kind of produce that you want.”
Horne is open and willing to work with chefs and individuals for their specific needs.
The location at Firefly helps keep King Tide hyperlocal, within 10 to 15 miles from most restaurants.
“I can harvest within hours and get it to you. So that’s the song and dance, really.”
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