For one area company, growing jobs has become as simple as planting the seeds — literally.
At TAC Enterprises, 2160 Old Selma Rd., a hydroponics program which started late last year now produces lettuce and basil which is being sold to area restaurants.
TAC, an incorporated business that contracts with local and national companies and the federal government, employs developmentally disabled individuals.
A major portion of the company’s work comes from a contract with the U.S. Air Force to construct and repair cargo nets.
The idea for the hydroponics farm, now known as Town & Country Farms, sprang from Communications Manager Dave Faulkner’s interpretation of the company’s mission statement and its call to create jobs for the disabled community.
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“We saw other locations in the U.S. similar to TAC doing the same thing and decided it would work here,” Faulkner said. “It fits in well with what we already do, creates jobs and allows us to create a product to sell to the community.”
The initial operation was set up to allow for about 600 heads of lettuce to be produced, but because of the program’s success, the facility has already doubled in size with about 25 percent of the space used to grow basil.
Hydroponics Supervisor Helena Scaggs, a registered service associate at TAC, and Rusty Rathburn, a TAC employee, are responsible for the success on the front line.
Each week, Scaggs and Rathburn harvest close to 200 heads of lettuce and 4 to 5 pounds of basil.
Area restaurants serving TAC’s products, branded as Spring Field Fresh, are Café Paradiso in Urbana, The Jaguar Room at Springfield-Clark Career Technology Center, Seasons Bistro & Grille, Simon Kenton Inn, and Simply Delicious.
“If we could get eight to 10 solid weekly customers, that will be all we need for right now,” said Business Development Manager Steve Berner.
As business grows, TAC has the space to expand its production facility and add more jobs.
“We would like to eventually be able to scale up production so we could sell to the public, which would offer our products to the community and give our employees the chance to get out there and meet with the public,” Faulkner said.
Hydroponics is a process by which plants are grown in a soilless atmosphere. That soil is replaced by a water-based medium that brings all of the necessary nutrients to the plants for optimal growth.
At Town & Country Farms, the process uses no pesticides, insecticides or herbicides and conserves water.
“We use about one-tenth of the water used in traditional farming,” Faulkner said.
Each head of lettuce or basil plant is individually started from seed, which Rathburn plants by hand.
“That’s my favorite part of the whole process,” said the 18-year TAC veteran.
Seeds are then placed into the nursery for about 7 to 10 days to germinate.
Seedlings are transplanted into the hydroponic channels and harvested after 6 to 7 weeks.
“This is my garden,” Rathburn said.
Scaggs monitors the entire process, making sure everything is running smoothly.
She monitors the water system, keeping an eye on water levels and pH of the nutrient solution and cleaning the filters.
She also has to keep a close eye on the temperature in the room and the refrigerator where they store seeds.
“I just try to keep track of everything. I write all the levels down on my clipboard so we know what’s going on,” she said.
According to Berner, Scaggs is the lynchpin that has enabled the program to succeed.
“She’s far too modest,” Berner said. “Helena runs the show — she’s in the trenches fighting the battle with production while Dave and I are out there trying to find more customers.”
To make sure TAC is selling the freshest products possible, Scaggs and Rathburn have learned to harvest right before they make a delivery.
Lettuce is delivered with the root ball attached so shelf-life is longer.
Restaurateur Pat Thackery, who owns Cafe Paradiso at 3 Monument Square, Urbana, with his wife Patsy, was one of Town & Country’s first customers.
A long-time friend of Faulkner’s, the Urbana resident said at the outset it seemed like a great option because he’s always looking for organic herbs and produce.
After a few months, he’s come to rely on the quality, especially for his restaurant’s pesto.
“The quality is fabulous and it’s so fresh,” Thackery said.
“The basil doesn’t even know it’s been picked by the time we have it in the blender with some olive oil.”
The cost is competitive and doesn’t fluctuate, which helps Thackery estimate and control his operating costs, he said.
Long-term he’s hoping to be able to work with the program and have some new products grown for him, but for now he’s willing to wait.
“It’s great for us,” he said, “but we’re also helping people who need jobs.”
Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0371 or email@example.com.