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Nerd-ture over nature

The triumph of Oklahoma’s largest hydroponic farm

Scissortail Farms

Evan Taylor

Before Scissortail Farms grew into a hydroponic farm capable of harvesting a million pounds of greens each year, it was just an experiment in John Sulton’s backyard. 

The former production and supply chain engineer founded the farm—now Oklahoma’s largest hydroponic growth facility—a few years ago with his friend Rob Walenta, who has a background in construction and government management. The pair went searching for technology that could eliminate the usual drawbacks of farming and keep consistent, fresh greens available to the community year-round.

“In Oklahoma, a lot of vegetables are available at one point during the year, then they disappear,” Sulton said. “Then [other crops] come out of California, and there’s a drought and prices go up, or there’s a flood and prices fluctuate.”

Hydroponic farming has the advantage of control.

“That’s the key,” Sulton said. “Not being at the mercy of the elements.”

Intrigued with the methods used at Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida, they planned a greenhouse of their own. During the yearlong construction, Sulton’s backyard became Scissortail’s testing site.

The not-so-mad scientists tinkered with a dozen vertical growing towers and produced lettuce mixes, sorrel and arugula. Last fall, Sulton and Walenta transplanted the test farm to their half-acre facility on a hill deep in west Tulsa.

Inside the 26,000-square-foot greenhouse, more than 1,300 lightweight plastic towers hold about 50 plants each. At the base of each tower, sensors monitor water levels, pH and nutrients. Baby kale grows in less than a month on a sheet of artificial soil made of spun volcanic ash. Leggy arugula and tufts of peppery mustard greens mature a few rows down. 

Scissortail Farms partners with local restaurants including The Vault, Juniper, Bodean, Boston Deli, Doc’s Food & Wine, La Villa at Philbrook, Tallgrass Prairie Table and The Canebrake in Wagoner.

The farm offers select leafy greens and herbs—living roots and all—including spinach, Swiss chard, Thai basil, cilantro, parsley and others. Sulton and Walenta are also experimenting with vegetables—some of which would be less expensive to grow because they wouldn’t require a tower.

Protected from the hazards of our temperamental climate (the farm has weathered both hailstorms and tornadoes), Scissortail can grow and harvest between 60,000 to 70,000 plants in rapid, continuous cycles. The thriving greenhouse is a testament to the power of applied nerdery—the leafy-green victory of nerd-ture over nature.

Still, it’s not immune to catastrophe. On June 1, an electrical fire in the greenhouse destroyed half a dozen towers, and smoke and ash ruined the entire harvest.

On a typical farm, the season would be a wash at this point. But as soon as the smoke cleared, the Scissortail crew cleaned up and immediately re-planted the hundreds of seedlings at the ready in an isolated nursery.

Less than a month later, the greenhouse has bounced back. Amidst the lush greenery, the only sign of fire is a cloudy black smoke stain in the center of the overhead tarp.

To order or pick up freshly-plucked greens for your own dishes, visit the farm weekdays from 2-5 p.m. To tour the facility, schedule in advance. 

Scissortail Farms // 8450 W. 51st St. // 918.236.6047 // info@scissortailfarms.com  

For more on local food and drink, read Megan Shepherd's play-by-play of a short-order showdown (Dilly Diner vs. Bramble Breakfast & Bar) and escape to Saturn Room with Joshua Kline.