Apr 7, 2007Family Grows Best Lettuce in Central Texas
Susan Staub grows the best lettuce in central Texas, and she’s not shy about saying so.
“Our lettuce is superior to any other bib lettuce out there,” she said. “People just flip over the color.”
Susan, 63, and her husband Rusty, 58, own Amador Farms in Dripping Springs, Texas. They also grow strawberries, Asian greens, herbs, basil and dill, but lettuce is their specialty.
“We decided we were going to pick one crop and do the very best job we could with that one specific crop,” she said. “We didn’t want to get scattered.”
They became full-time growers about three years ago, when Rusty lost his job. He worked in a business that was failing at the time, so they knew a change might be on the horizon. They were still surprised by the timing.
“It came sooner than we thought,” Susan said. “Thank goodness we had two greenhouses and were ready to work.”
Susan’s passion for gardening was the seed of their business. For a long time, she tried to coax growing things out of their soil, but came to the conclusion that they had the “worst dirt in the world.” Hard well water didn’t help, either. Her plants didn’t produce much, she said.
Eventually, Rusty built her a greenhouse. She started growing good crops and selling some of the produce. Things went so well, they decided to build another greenhouse. As a result, they were well positioned when Rusty lost his job.
“We literally rolled up our sleeves,” Susan said. “We had to make the farm pay.”
They’ve had to overcome certain obstacles. Their property is about 30 miles from Austin in an isolated, rural area. It’s not the best location for retail sales. Fortunately, they joined the Sunset Valley Farmers Market near Austin, which has been great for business, Susan said.
Rising oil prices have been a challenge. They make deliveries three times a week to their customers, including restaurants and grocery stores, but they can’t raise their prices to make up for more expensive gas, she said.
“If you raise the price, then you’re competing with big produce companies that have a number of customers and suppliers,” Susan said. “They can absorb that cost much easier than we can.”
Susan and Rusty have another full-time job: Raising their 13-year-old grandson, Brandon. Fortunately, he helps out around the farm. Between the three of them, they get everything done. They don’t have employees, and Susan doesn’t want any.
“To me, employees are problems and headaches I don’t need,” she said. “I don’t want to wonder if someone will come to work. Three of us can handle it. That’s the way I want to keep it.”
Amador Farms uses organic practices, but is not certified organic. The Staubs don’t want to deal with the hefty fees associated with certification, Susan said.
“We never use pesticides or herbicides,” she said. “There are plenty of beneficial insects on the farm.”
Hydroponics seems to be the best fit for the farm.
“We’ve always believed in conserving every resource,” she said. “Waste is just not a thing we want to do.”
In order to conserve water, the farm uses drip irrigation, a rainwater collection system and a reverse osmosis unit, which keeps the well water at a consistent pH level. They designed the irrigation system themselves, she said.
The Staubs started growing hydroponic strawberries about a year ago. They needed a crop that could keep sales up during slow periods.
“In summer, I can sell every head of lettuce I can grow,” she said. “I don’t need strawberries.”
The Staubs are building another greenhouse, and would like to expand beyond that, but money is always an issue. Their business is completely self-financed, she said.
“We had no debt load when we started,” she said. “We had credit cards that had zero balances. Now, we’re in debt.”
But that’s OK, because she has a wonderful commute. All she has to do is step outside and walk across her deck.
“It’s really a great life,” she said. “You can set your own pace, even though some days are kind of crazy.”
Susan is proud of what they’ve accomplished.
“We built it all ourselves,” she said. “No outside labor helped us. You name it, we can do it.”
Other people can do it, too. They just have to do their homework. There’s plenty of information out there. It’s also important to network, she said.
“Pay attention to everybody.”