Ralf du Toit grew up in South Africa and served in the military, where service was required, until 1989. He was injured, and in 1989 and 1990, ended up working on a hydroponic farm. “It was a rose grower who developed different rose varieties with hydroponic systems — and that’s where I learned about hydroponics,” he says.
After more than 20 years out of the business — and most of it spent raising a family in the United States — du Toit fulfilled an enduring passion for hydroponics, and he began his own operation, Extreme Green Farms, in Auburn, Alabama. He provides produce to Auburn University and various restaurants in Auburn; Montgomery, Alabama; and Columbus, Georgia. His customers include Acre, owned by “Iron Chef Showdown” winner David Bancroft, and Amsterdam Cafe in Auburn; Central in Montgomery; and 11th and Bay in Columbus.
Du Toit grows lettuce, microgreens, tomatoes and cucumbers in a three-bay gutter-connect house and a hoop house that he bought from CropKing, and two more high-tunnels that he bought used, all of which he set up himself. He uses CropKing’s NFT, bato bucket and microgreens systems. He also has a deep-water system he built.
A love of hydroponics
After moving to the United States in 1992, du Toit lived in Atlanta and worked in computer technology and support for companies such as American Express, Xerox and SunTrust Bank. He says land wasn’t readily available in Atlanta, so hydroponics didn’t present itself as an opportunity there. But he still thought a lot about it.
“From when [my children] were little, my wife would always joke with me, and she would say to the kids, ‘What does Daddy say?’ and they would say, ‘Hydroponics,’” du Toit says. “They didn’t know what it meant or anything, but it’s just something that’s always been on the tip of my tongue and always in my thoughts and my mind, and something that I enjoyed when I did it back in the day, and always thought that I would want to get back into it and do it again.”
In the early 2010s, du Toit circled back to hydroponics. He created Extreme Green Farms and started growing lettuce hydroponically in a leased space. From the very beginning, he used CropKing’s controllers and pumps, and he bought seed and fertilizer from the company. Later, he bought many of his structures and hydroponic systems from CropKing.
“The support that I’ve gotten since I bought the system — I call them all the time,” du Toit says. “Jeff [Balduff] and Karen [Burke] and Jim [Brown] — the tech people there are really fantastic as it relates to trying to resolve problems and answer questions. Sometimes you know the answer, but it’s always easier or more comforting to hear it from somebody else.”
Expansion at Extreme Green
Since he began growing Bibb and romaine lettuce, du Toit has expanded his lettuce varieties to artisan and a salanova mix blend. His microgreens varieties include a spicy mix mustard, arugula, carrot top, celery, daikon radish, sorrel, red-veined sorrel and basil. His tomatoes are red beefsteak, yellow beefsteak, red grape and black cherry. English cucumbers occupy a small part of his greenhouse space. While he grows tomatoes from September or October to June, he grows everything else year-round.
Du Toit also has an employee, Jose Reyes, who performs various tasks with du Toit. “He does seeding, planning, cleaning, pruning, harvesting, packing — we do it all together,” du Toit says.
To meet demand for Extreme Green Farms’ product, du Toit is expanding his greenhouse space and plans to offer a greater assortment of crops. He recently ordered new bays for his gutter-connect house. “I’m looking at going to heirlooms and beefsteak tomatoes with that, and then probably later this year — probably toward the latter part of the summer — I will order another bay, and that is to expand my lettuce production.” Du Toit says he is ordering his new bays from CropKing.
Ralf du Toit and his daughter Caroline in the greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Ralf du Toit.