A Middle Georgia stay-at-home mom makes more than a little spending money from her hydroponic lettuce farm.
Along U.S. Highway 441, a few miles north of Dublin, GA, drivers often slow down to behold a beautifully restored, 200 year old farm house looking out over the countryside. It’s the oldest homestead in Laurens County and the pride of owners Colby and Alexis Edwards. Surveying the aged charm of this estate, one could easily envision a gentleman farmer plowing a backyard plot preparing the soil for soybeans or corn. What a surprise indeed to learn that this artfully preserved property is home to an ultramodern hydroponic lettuce growing operation that’s yielding its owners a bumper crop of success.
Clean Hands Farming
“Hydroponics is a method of growing where crops are cultivated in a controlled environment of water and nutrient rich solutions, rather than soil,” explains Alexis, who sports an attractive manicure without a speck of dirt under her nails. People are often surprised to learn of the numerous advantages to growing and eating hydroponic produce: like the ability to farm virtually anywhere without worrying about the weather or soil quality, crops that are pesticide and insecticide free and food that’s rich in nutrients. See sidebar to learn more.
Planting the Seeds of Success
Colby, a manager with AT&T and Alexis, a stay-at-home mom were amazed to stumble upon this reliable and straightforward way to supplement their family’s income. Living Fresh, the Edwards’ burgeoning brand of lettuce and herbs, began as a new hobby for the couple, a way to make a few extra dollars selling at farmers markets and to local restaurants.
“Becoming a hydroponic lettuce farmer isn’t something I’ve dreamed of since childhood,” laughs Alexis. “After my kids, Riley and Grace Anne, were in elementary school, I was looking for a way to stay busy and to make a little extra spending money, to buy designer shoes once in a while. But I hated the thought of having to get permission from a boss to stay home if my child was sick. I wanted to be in charge of my own time clock.”
The idea of starting a hydroponic farm came up just three years ago, on a visit to the couple’s former hometown of Baxley, GA. “Our old neighbors both had full-time jobs and did really well growing tomatoes hydroponically as a side business. It seemed to be a pretty low maintenance way to grow vegetables. One day they were showing us around their greenhouses, explaining the process and the thought came to me, ‘if they can do this then I can too.’” After a lot of consideration and prayer, the Edwards’ took a big leap of faith and started their own hydroponic growing operation.
“After doing some research, we chose to start with lettuce because no one else was growing it in our area,” explains Colby. “It’s a hearty crop without some of the vulnerabilities that other vegetables, like tomatoes and cucumbers can fall victim to. Plus, there’s always a good market for it. Lettuce is such a salad staple.” The Edwards’ have now expanded to Romaine, Red Oak Leaf and Red Bibb. They also cultivate oregano, sage and a garnish called lolorosa.
Working with a company called Crop King, which sells hydroponic farming equipment, and even has a full-time horticulturist on staff to provide growers lots of support, the Edwards’ purchased a complete growing system: everything needed to build the greenhouse; two computer systems, one for climate control and another to constantly measure the pH and nutrients in the growing medium and notify the Edwards’ when they need to be adjusted. Of course, they also bought enough growing components to maintain 1,600 plants in various stages of growth year round.
Step one was to build the computerized greenhouse, something neither had studied in college or had any experience doing. Step two; purchase a refrigerated truck for distribution. Step three: plant their first Bibb lettuce seeds. “From the day we planted our first seeds, we knew we’d stumbled onto something special that would soon become more than just a hobby,” recalls Colby.
“Overall, our start-up costs were around $100,000. We probably didn’t have to spend that much,” assures Alexis. “It can be done for less, but we were so meticulous about getting everything just right. To us, that meant buying new everything.”
The couple is now thinking about purchasing two more greenhouses to keep up with customer demand and grow more varieties of produce. “We’ve found a couple of used ones we can buy for $25,000. Now that we’ve built one greenhouse from the ground up, we’re more comfortable with modifying the used ones to meet our needs.”
Low Maintenance, Year ‘Round Farming
The hydroponic growing method is simple. Once seeds are planted in trays containing nutrient rich growing solution which provides what a plant would normally get from the soil, seedlings spend the first two weeks of life on a warming pad in the greenhouse’s nursery area, until sprouts pop up. Then they’re transferred to long rows of growing trays with postage stamp-sized openings filled with rockwool, a man-made mineral fiber, which helps retain moisture and nutrients, where they remain until ready for harvesting.
To the lay-person accustomed to seeing plants entrenched in oversized pots of soil, the tray openings don’t appear large enough to support such prolific growth. Still, the Edwards’ crops flourish, and are ready to be picked, packaged and shipped every three to seven weeks, all throughout the year. Currently Alexis delivers over a thousand heads of lettuce to stores and restaurants throughout Georgia every week.
“Depending on what needs to be done, I spend anywhere from five minutes to several hours in the greenhouse each day,” says Alexis. Some days all I do is check to make sure the tanks are full of nutrients and that all the plants have water. Other days, we’re seeding or harvesting. That takes a little longer. I spend at least one day a week doing deliveries.”
The Family that Works Together:
As in every business, jobs at the Edwards’ farm are based on skills, talent and who’s interested in tacking which task. Mistress of the greenhouse, Alexis loves the therapeutic aspects of managing a garden and doesn’t mind working among rows and rows of leafy greens that don’t provide much in the way of conversation.
Colby, who has spent most of his career in management, is the farm’s chief salesperson and negotiator. However, when retailers and restaurant operators sample the product, there’s not much selling that needs to be done. “Colby always brings a box of each type of lettuce with him on every sales call. The taste and quality speak for themselves.” says Alexis.
One of the benefits the Edwards have noticed about their greenhouse farm is the sense of unity they feel in working together as a family. “I can’t really think of any other business where my kids can feel like they’re a part of our success,” Alexis says proudly. “I think it’s an attribute that’s lost among many of today’s families. Mom and Dad go to work and bring home a check. The kids aren’t involved.” Riley, 11 and Grace Anne, 7, often help Alexis in the greenhouse after school doing various jobs from picking lettuce, to getting the packages ready for delivery and accompanying her in the delivery truck.
Cultivating Customer Satisfaction
While the Edwards have a handful of chain grocery stores, like Kroger, Sam’s and Coosemans on their customer list, it’s mostly the higher end markets and restaurants carry their produce. “Colby and I have fallen into this wonderful niche. So far, we haven’t been hurt at all by the recession. Our customers have proven very loyal. They don’t mind paying a little extra for our lettuce because they like it. It’s appealing and lasts a long time.”
Lettuce orders increased 20 percent at Natalia’s, a local white table cloth, Italian restaurant, after they began ordering from the Edwards’. Chef Pietro Bongiovanni, who receives around 80 heads of Bibb, Oak Leaf and Romaine lettuce per week from Alexis, wishes that he could buy more of his produce from local farmers. “I would much rather serve vegetables that are grown locally than what we get from nationwide distributors. Small growers put a lot more care into their crops and the quality really shows. Alexis’s produce is fresher and tastier because we get it the same day it’s picked, with the roots still attached. That way it lasts up to two weeks.”
“Smaller growers are also able to experiment with different varieties, not just the same old standard lettuce orders week after week,” continues Bongiovanni. “Not long ago, Alexis brought in some ‘Blue Bibb.’ The customers raved about it because it was something unique and special and looked great on the plate.”
Right now, the Edwards’ are experimenting with growing basil in strawberry baskets. It’s still too early to tell whether it’ll be a hit with customers. But that’s one of the great things about hydroponics, the sheer variety of crops that can be cultivated. Farmers aren’t locked into one product only.
Professor and Vegetable Expert for the University of Georgia, George Boyhan says that while tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers are the top three hydroponically grown produce items, farmers throughout the U.S. and Canada have had success with squash, cantaloupe, micro greens, peppers, carrots and tobacco, just to name a few.
Plans for the Future
In addition to purchasing two new greenhouses, the Edwards’ plan to set up booths at more farmers markets around the state, selling directly to consumers. “I think a lot of people want fresh, Georgia-grown produce,” says Colby “In this world of mass-marketing everything, there’s something reassuring about buying directly from the grower. You know that you’re getting fruits and vegetables that have just been picked—by hand and you’re supporting the local economy.”
When asked how they envision their farm’s future, the Edwards’ agree that growth is good, but only as long as they’re able to remain a family operation. “We don’t ever want to get so big that our products and relationships with our customers start to suffer. I like calling my customers personally and making the deliveries myself,” Alexis adds. “It should always be about quality first, not quantity.”
Right now, though, the Edwards’ are just thrilled with their home grown success story. “It’s a huge feeling of empowerment,” declares Alexis, “to be able to say we built this business ourselves, with no background in hydroponics, or farming of any kind. And now we’re harvesting the rewards.”
No Soil. No Compost. No Gardening Gloves Needed:
If you’re not familiar with hydroponic growing, it just may be the perfect answer for those who love to garden, but can’t stand the mess. Hydroponic farming normally takes place in a greenhouse where crops are grown in trays containing nutrient rich solutions, rather than soil. The benefits are quite impressive.
- Pesticide and Insecticide Free Produce: Because no soil is used, there’s no need for introducing potentially harmful foreign chemicals to eliminate pests and diseases that thrive in dirt farming. Also, Vegetable Expert George Boyhan says that when greenhouses are properly sealed, insects stay outside and plants are kept completely dry. This reduces diseases and infestations. However, if greenhouses become too humid, salmonella can be a problem.
- No Weeds to Battle: No soil means no uninvited green guests.
- Healthier Produce: With soil-based growing, some of a plant’s nutrients are dispersed in the medium, resulting in less nutritious produce. Hydroponic crops spend their lives soaking in constantly circulating nutrient-rich solutions and water. Some studies have shown up to 50 percent higher vitamin content in hydroponically grown vegetables.
- Higher Yields: Regardless of the soil quality and the weather outside, inside a greenhouse, farmers can create optimal growing conditions, thus getting the most out of their crops, 30 to 50 percent higher growth rates are common.
Trends from the Greenhouse
We’ve all seen those super-sized, plastic-wrapped cucumbers in the produce department. They’re Dutch or Beit Alpha cucumbers. While they’re growing in popularity; they’re often grown hydroponically too.
Hydroponic lettuce growers like to harvest crops with the roots still attached. This gives them a fresh, clean look that’s more appealing to buyers.
Angela Weight is a freelance writer living in Middle Georgia.