Flavors: Swanky Roots: Lettuce and Greens from the House of Spring

Feb 17, 2019

Ronna Klamert and Veronnaka Evenson stand in their 30,000 square foot Swanky Roots aquaponic green house.
Credit Stella Fong

The house of perpetual spring is found year-round between Billings and Laurel, Montana, not far from the Yellowstone River. In a 30,000 square-foot aquaponic greenhouse, Swanky Roots grows lettuce, herbs, edible flowers and microgreens.  The owners, mother and daughter team Ronna Klamert and Veronnaka Evenson, started their venture in 2016. 

Daughter Veronnaka credits her mother for coming up with the idea to start Swanky roots. It was after Veronnaka brought home some tomato plants Montana State University Bozeman when she was studying for her degree in agricultural education that Ronna wanted pursue other growing techniques. After bringing the plants to maturity and dealing with tomatoes splitting and infestation of insect, she wanted to find an alternative to grow a more pristine product that was free of insects.

Veronnaka Evenson checks seedlings germinating in rock wool to see if they are ready for the next step. Large tanks housing blue gill are found on the east section of the greenhouse.
Credit Stella Fong

“She showed me this aquaponics system from a company called Nelson and Pade, and at first, I thought whatever, it was just another one of your side projects,” Veronnaka shared. When she investigated further into the system she was convinced because “It’s very scientific based.” She continued believing the idea was a great way to grow, “It made sense to me the combination between the fish and the plants, and not having to add a bunch of different chemicals.”

The green house hovers at a constant 75 degrees with the sound of gently rushing water. A sense of calm reigns. I breath in clean air in a verdant green world, in stark contrast to the snow outside. The spa like atmosphere is at once soothing and inviting befitting the name “swanky.” The sensation is luxurious fulfilling the definition for “swanky.”  

Swanky is Ronna’s maiden name and Veronnaka said, “A lot of people think of Swanky and they think of fun, fancier, newer type of things and that’s what we are all about.”

The growing process begins with Ronna placing individual seeds into flats lined with rock wool, produced by blowing streams of air through molten rock, shaped into a block about the size of a large ice cube with a hole punched in the top. “It’s like making cotton candy,” this spongy, soilless substrate that provides seedlings adequate nutrition and water.

Heads of leaf lettuce lifted from circulating water system below, checking roots and close to being ready for harvest.
Credit Stella Fong

Ronna places individual seed into a flat of 200 cubes. Each shift, she sets up 2 flats which means 400 tiny seeds into a tiny hole. “We hand-plant all of those seeds and then they spend 10 to 15 days in the flat on our germination table.”  The telltale sign they are for ready for the next stage is developing a good root system with many dozens of feeders. The plants are then moved to the next stage. “That’s where our NFTs are and that stands for Nutrient Film Technique” where plants are allowed to grow in shallower stream of water. Veronnaka said, “I like to think of it as a preschool for the plants.”

The greenhouse houses rows of beds that extend the length of the space and then each are about 6 feet wide and a couple of feet deep. The youngest plants are found at the south end with the first couple of rows occupied with clay pebble beds growing other produce such as kale, radishes, cabbage, nasturtiums and cherry tomatoes.

As the plants mature, they move north over the water system. The system begins in the tanks on the east end of the building. These 4 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter tubs hold 12,000 gallons of water and 1,000 bluegill. Veronnaka shared of the Rangen feed they give the fish, “It’s really high-quality feed. Its GMO free and it makes sure that the fish are getting everything they need to be healthy.”

Ronna Klamert holds radishes harvest from the clay pebble beds behind her.
Credit Stella Fong

Veronnaka continued, “Tilapia typically works best in an aquaponic system. What you want to find is a fish that can match up with your plant’s needs.” “We need to have the water temperature around 72 to 74 degrees for the plants so you’ve got to be able to find fish that can handle that warmer water,” she added. The circulating waste from the fish is gravity fed into the planter beds. The plants use up the nutrients and then the water is pumped and filtered back up into the fish tanks.

Executive Chef Dirk Frickel of Hilands Golf Club  comes out personally to pick up lettuce and other greens from Swanky Roots. Frickel said, “What the ladies do at Swanky Roots is not far from what I do in the kitchen. It is a labor of love, and they put a ton of work and passion in growing their lettuce.” You can go to the grocery store and get mass produced stuff that was shipped here from a different state or even a different country, or you can buy something that was grown right here in Montana, right here in Laurel, right off the interstate.” Frickel is adjusting his menu to feature Swanky Roots’s produce. He chooses from a variety of lettuces and microgreens including broccoli, chives and kale, used to garnish his dishes. These miniature sprouts concentrate the flavor and nutrients of the adult version.

Self-help refrigerator in the retail area at the front of the greenhouse where greens are for sale every day of the week.
Credit Stella Fong

Though I refer to Swanky Roots as the house of spring, I may include a bit of summer as they grow chocolate cherry tomatoes that embody the spirit of the warmest time of the year. Dangling from a string in the clay pebble beds are brown, green and red tomatoes, just smaller than a ping pong ball. These meaty and sweet fruits of summer bring warmth to my stomach as temperature hover around 0 degrees F. outside.

Though Swanky Roots’ green are available at Lucky’s Market in town, the best experience is to drive towards Laurel and the Yellowstone River to pick up the produce yourself. For a fee, tours take place on Saturdays.

There is a hope of warmth as we live through the winter chill at Swanky Roots in the house of spring.