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Hydroponic lettuce wins customers’ hearts

People’s desire for tender, baby lettuce shows up in the price tag. A small head of Boston butter or Bibb commands $3 or so while bigger heads of iceberg are selling for $1 in the same produce department. Bibb is a gourmet item in restaurants.

Last year, Paul Mock Sr. went into business growing Bibb lettuce, year-round, hydroponically, in greenhouses near Berkeley Springs, W.V. It’s working. He’s plowing the profits back and building more greenhouses.

He also grows seven acres of vegetables outdoors and hydroponic tomatoes.

Mock talked about his farming operation during a session at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference titled, “profitable greenhouse vegetables.”

One thing that has contributed to demand, he said, was the food safety scares and product recalls of last year, when lettuce and spinach was contaminated by E. coli bacteria. People turned to products grown without soil. “I could sell 10-fold what I’m selling now,” he said.

Here’s how Paul described the process.

He sows seed in rockwool cubes, 200 to a tray, and in 10 days the small plants are ready to set into NFT channels made of 2-1/2-inch PVC pipe. NFT stands for nutrient film technique, the basic hydroponic process that uses water to deliver nutrients without drowning the plants. The roots also need to be exposed to air, so they can be only partially submerged.

Depending upon the time of year, the plants mature in from 22 to 40 days, but to keep a good harvest schedule Paul uses grow lights in the winter to speed the growth.

He has it set up so every week he can harvest 1,200 to 1,600 heads of lettuce that are 28 days old.

To harvest, Paul shuts off the irrigation to an area (he has eight zones) and lifts out a tube with its heads of lettuce. Each tube is 12 feet long and holds 22 plants spaced evenly. Each plant is removed from the tube, the root mass is trimmed and any poor leaves removed. The lettuce is packed either in an individual clamshell contains, with roots on, or into a bulk box for sale to restaurants.

New plants are put into the tubes the day of harvest, so it’s a continuous process.

The shelf life of these rooted heads if three weeks in clamshells, Paul said, when stored at 38 ˚F. Because there is no moisture on the leaves, decay is not a problem.

In fact, growing takes place without pesticide applications as well.

“We can’t say we’re organic,” said Paul’s wife, Raynette. “Hydroponic growing doesn’t qualify because of the fertilizers we use. But we don’t use pesticides.”

The name of their business is Mock’s Greenhouse and Landscaping, and it reflects the nature of their business. Paul was part of his family’s wholesale produce and retail bedding plant business 90 miles north of where they now farm.

In 2003, Paul and Raynette married, and Paul moved south to where she lived. They started a landscape business installing water gardens, and last year started the hydroponic greenhouse operation. They live in the “eastern panhandle” of West Virginia.

“You can see four states from the front window,” she said.

Marketing is a combination. They sell some lettuce from their own retail market, along with hydroponic tomatoes and field-grown tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables in summer. They sell some hydroponic lettuce and tomatoes, along with field-grown tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables, through a local farmers’ market 10 miles away that is open from 10 to 2 each Sunday.

Running a weekly 300-mile delivery route, about a third of the lettuce goes to Whole Foods stores in clamshells, along with tomatoes packed in 10-pound boxes. The rest goes to restaurants through brokers, packed 12 to a box in plastic-lined boxes.

Paul likes to get retail prices of $2.50 to $3 a head at the farmer’s market, but says it’s costly in time and their area doesn’t have the people base he really needs to move the volume. Wholesale prices are half the retail level.

The hydroponic tomato growing is similar to lettuce, except the plants grow in perlite in buckets. Lettuce needn’t be pollinated, of source; bumblebees do the job in the tomatoes.

In both systems, a computer controls heating, ventilation and the fertilizer injection system. Insect exclusion screening eliminates the need for pest control.

“Our buyers represent several different upscale users from restaurant use to retail store,” Paul said of both the tomato and lettuce marketing. “The buyers appreciate that the produce is picked the day before delivery, that the owner and grower has complete control and involvement in everything from growing to answering the phone to delivering the product.

“This is an area a family farm can excel in and make a difference that other much larger farms cannot, thus giving you a profitable operation.”

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007