Franz and Karen Rowland were tired of seeing their vacant swine farrowing houses sitting idle. That’s when the full-time cotton growers decided to convert one facility from hogs to hydroponic vegetable production, a decision that helped sprout additional income for the southern Georgia operation.

The Rowlands, along with Wood Farless, a North Carolina producer who developed a hydraulic innovation to reduce the transport width of his tractors, were named winners of the Innovation Nation contest sponsored by Syngenta and Farm Press. For their farmer-developed innovations, they win an expense-paid trip to Vero Beach, Fla.

The contest drew entries from innovative farmers across the Mid-South and Southeast. They were men and women who followed in the footsteps of people like famous colonial farmer Thomas Jefferson, who helped develop a moldboard plow after helping forge the Declaration of Independence.

The contest took advantage of the many unique ideas farmers have for making something work better with a little welding here, or moving a toolbar there.

“As a farmer, you don’t often think of something as being innovative. You just make it work,” Karen Rowland says, while describing their efforts to change the old swine house into a new profit center to complement their main cash crops. “When you have a facility like that in place and not being used, as a farmer, you either tear it down or use it for something else. You can’t just let it set there.”

Photos: Innovation Nation 2012: Franz and Karen Rowland

Hydroponics, the practice of growing plants in a liquid nutrient, came to mind as a way to make the hog houses produce new income. “We retrofitted one house by adding skylights and running new water lines,” Karen says. “We made it into a hydroponics farm to grow vegetables by using old plastic barrels or drums cut in half for planting pots. Many were recycled containers that we cleaned thoroughly. We used coconut fiber and gin trash for a planting medium.”

This spring and summer saw them produce heirloom tomatoes, green beans, bell peppers, okra and lettuce. “We used a stacked-pot system for the green beans to maximize growing space, going up instead of out,” Karen says. “We wound up with a ‘wall’ of beans. Because of the facility’s ideal growing conditions, we only water every five days to six days.”

Overall, they grow two acres of veggies in a 300 by 60 foot area. It requires only a few hours of labor a week. “We divided the building into 10 by 40 foot areas and used the old farrowing house cinder block walls to stack barrels on,” Karen says, adding that wooden tables are also used to hold containers within the 10 by 40 areas.

“We get as much production from one of those areas as we would from two full acres of field crops. Our plans are to retrofit the other three houses in the same way.”

The other winner in the Innovation Nation contest was Wood Farless, whose family grows cotton, corn, soybeans peanuts and tobacco on two separate farms 60 miles apart in northeast North Carolina.

The Farless’ dilemma was how to transport tractors equipped with fertilizer tanks up and down 60 miles of interstate while keeping state troopers happy.

Photos: Innovation Nation 2012: Wood Farless

“We transport our tractors on a lowboy behind a semi,” says Wood, who farms with his father, brother and uncle out of Merry Hill, N.C. “The problem was that when we put two300-gallon saddle tanks on each side of the tractor, they were too wide to transport the rig on the lowboy.”

To fix the problem, Farless modified brackets that mount to their John Deere 8320 tractor, enabling the tanks to be moved in or out using a hydraulic cylinder. “Now, when the tanks are moved in, they are less than 14 feet wide, or no wider than the dual tires on the lowboy,” he says.

“When you get to where you’re going you can move them out. That improves visibility and provides easier access to the tractor. We’re able to slide the tanks past the exhaust so they don’t get too hot. The tanks are very sturdy and work better than I ever thought they would. It makes the tractor so much easier to move.”

Wood concludes that he “thought about how to arrange the tanks at least 100 times before I figured it out.”

That’s the type of attitude farmers take when facing a challenge. Farmers are often engineers, mathematicians, architects and mechanics who maintain a host of other skills that can turn their shops into research laboratories.

Farm Press and Syngenta congratulate the Rowlands, Farlesses and all growers who entered the Innovation Nation contest. And we tip our hats to all farmers, coast to coast, who use their skills to perfect a plow, conserve water or – like the Rowlands – help bring home the bacon with veggies grown in a hog house.