BARNSTEAD — The Comtois family first got into hydroponics in the summer of 2006, using a system designed for commercial growers which was effective but expensive.
Hydroponic growing, a method of growing vegetables using mineral rich solutions in water and without soil, now occupies five acres of their 93-acre Sticks and Stones Farm.
''The cost of the system we started with was equal to what it cost us to have it shipped here. We worked with it over the years, but we were always buying someone else's system. And our prices were too high as a result. So I decided to try building my own,'' says Guy Comtois.
He decided to make his own using off-the-shelf materials and developed a horizontal hydroponics system using four inch PVC pipe cut into four foot lengths that are mounted on stands which can hold 30, 60 or 120 plants.
''The PVC pipe is UV treated so that it can withstand the sun and we run a drip line through each of the pods that hold 10 plants each,'' says Comtois, who says that the drip line is controlled by a timer and periodically circulates the nutrient-rich water through the growing medium, coconut fiber from Sri Lanka.
''There are no weeds and we found that we could take sections of pipe to farmer's markets and let people pick their own lettuce,'' says Barbara Comtois, who added that lettuce, tomatoes, basil, onions and baby carrots all grow well in the system.
Guy says it took him about a year to perfect his home made system and that it wasn't until a customer who owned a summer home on a nearby lake was so impressed with it that he asked Comtois to build him one so he could take it back to his home in Massachusetts.
''I never planned on making them to sell,'' says Comtois, who since that time has started making the units and marketing them as a U-Gro system over the Internet. He's sold 100 of them so far, mostly to people in California and the Southwest.
''We've sold them in 15 states so far and I have a provisional patent which I'm hoping to finalize soon.'' says Comtois, who says he's already had offers to partner with investors who would have them built in China.
''I don't want to do that. It would defeat the purpose of why I built them in the first place, which is to encourage people to grow food locally and avoid all the shipping costs associated with agriculture,'' He's still working on new variations of the U-Gro and is now developing one now which is solar-powered.
He and his wife moved to Barnstead from Pelham in 2000, looking for a new life after seeing the town they had grown up in become overgrown with development.
''We went to a youth baseball game and realized that we didn't know any of the other parents there, that the town had changed so much we didn't recognize it anymore. That's when we decided we wanted something that was a little slower-paced,'' says Comtois.
He had worked remodeling retail stores in shopping malls all up and down the East Coast and realized shortly after they bought the land in Barnstead that something new was in order for him and his young family.
Both he and his wife were intrigued with the idea of raising their family on a self-sufficient farm and put their shoulders to the wheel to achieve it. Barbara home schools their two children and handles the business end of the farming operations.
Using his skills as a builder. Comtois built the family home and two green houses for their produce business, followed by a farm stand where they could sell their vegetables. Then he put up shelters and run-ins for their animals, which included rabbits, which provide lean high protein meat, as well as Belted Galloway cattle, a sturdy breed which can handle New Hampshire winters.
There are also chickens, who live in a portable roost which goes from one pasture to another so that they can live off the land while eating the worms and bugs that feed in the nutrient-rich soil left by the livestock. There's also a pond filled with ducks, which will supply food at local restaurants.
Two Belgian draft horses are used for plowing and pulling the hay wagon and also provide hay rides in the fall and sleigh rides in the winter for visitors to the farm.
The vegetables grown at their greenhouses include basil, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, collards, cucumbers, eggplant, head lettuce, kale, leeks, radishes, spinach, summer squash, tomatoes, watermelons and winter squash.
The farm grow raspberries, garlic, and asparagus using conventional methods and is also experimenting with fruit trees.
Comtois is also a skilled rock cutter who has developed rock sculptures which can be seen at many resorts and private homes in New England.
He says that he sees a bright future for small farmers in New Hampshire, especially with the eat local mantra which has developed in recent years.
A two-term member of the New Hampshire House, Comtois serves on the House Environmental and Agriculture committee, the Republican says he works on behalf of legislation which will help small farmers.
Barbara and Guy Comtois of Sticks and Stones Farm in Barnstead with a solar-powered hydroponic growing system that he has developed. (Roger Amsden for The Laconia Daily Sun)