When Thomas Lord wanted to start his own business, HireSmart Cares stepped in with seed money so the high schooler could give his first entrepreneurial effort a go.
Thomas got a grant from Mark and Anne Lackey, Co-Founders of HireSmart Cares and a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), and with the help of his parents, Keith and Lauren, Thomas put up two 10’ by 16’ greenhouses where he would grow tomatoes and peppers for his business, F.R.O.G. Produce, which stands for “Farm-Raised, Organically Grown".
Thomas got the business idea after the agriculture department at the Broad River College and Career Academy in Danielsville, Georgia reactivated its aquaponics system, where plants are grown in the water that has been used to cultivate fish. Thomas was soon hooked on growing his own business.
“I originally thought about potentially growing flowers in the greenhouse and really growing anything in the greenhouse was really interesting to me,” he said.
Thomas cut the fish from the equation. But he had a vision — abundant tomatoes and peppers grown in a greenhouse through hydroponics, the process of growing plants using water and nutrients without soil. It would be his own niche on the family farm, where his mom said he has always been “faithful but halfhearted help in the poultry houses”.
Lauren said she loved seeing her son’s excitement about starting his own business.
“It was so exciting to see his enthusiasm and listen to his ideas for marketing,” she said. “He stayed up way too late researching various hydroponic systems, and we visited three operations to get ideas.”
Thomas said he initially grew “Rebelski" or some other beef steak type of tomato along with some cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and little mini bell peppers.
But temperature stabilization of the air and water proved a persistent challenge in the small greenhouses. Soil acts as a temperature stabilizer for roots in the ground, which aren’t exposed to the sun like in a greenhouse. Hydroponics requires considerable attention to the temperature, which affects the absorption rate of the nutrients. Thomas used an above-ground 50-gallon drum to feed the plants with water. He said a 250-gallon drum buried underground would be better for temperature stabilization. He also used fans to keep air flowing through the greenhouses. After he discovered the initial difficulties related to temperature, he narrowed his plan.
“I went more into focusing on specifically more beef steak variety of tomatoes, because we were noticing that some of our initial problems were keeping temperature control in the house since it’s such a small and contained area,” he said. “It was two 10’ by 16’ houses and a tiny fluctuation is a very big fluctuation in terms of the houses being so small. So, we decided to focus on the singular beef steak variety - so we could stabilize everything and make sure everything goes well before we start trying to branch out into some other options.”
Thomas sought to grow “indeterminate” tomatoes, which continue to set and ripen fruit throughout the growing season, instead of “determinate,” which hit their mature height and set all their fruit at once.
He said he would get a good first yield off the plants, but the second batch always proved problematic.
“The first harvest would go fine and then after that, they would just not really do anything,” he said.
Thomas is approaching the end of high school. He’ll cross the stage at Madison County High School in May, and then he’s planning to go to college and then work in the hospitality industry.
“The two industries I’ve looked at the most would be hotel and resort and the next one would be the food and beverage industry,” he said.
Thomas said he’s not planning to continue with hydroponics as a business in the short term, because of the costs, but it’s something he still loves and sees as a hobby. He said working in the greenhouses has been a good place to “think through the day or the week or a problem that you have that you’re trying to find a good solution for.”
But beyond growing plants, it’s been a growing endeavor for the teen, giving him perspective on the hard work it takes to start a business.
“It’s taught me a wide variety of life skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise thought about, because typically high schoolers aren’t thinking about budgeting or anything,” he said. “But with this, the FSA wanted me to list out the average estimated amount for each thing I went through. What do I need? What am I going to use? And it really helped me with learning how to set out a budget for something. I needed to know where I was going to stand. It might have been a little bit lower. It might have been a little bit higher, but it gave me a good estimate of what it was going to be and that’s just not a life skill that was an everyday thing for me. It’s definitely better to learn that earlier than later in life. These are things I wouldn’t have thought about on a typical day in high school.”
Thomas said he’s grateful for the opportunity HireSmart Cares provided.
“The Lackeys were generous enough to give me a grant to help with this, and they have also given me some really good advice,” said Thomas. “It’s been very helpful, and I really enjoy being able to communicate with them and appreciate the experience they’ve offered me.”