ANNABELLA — Lettuce can be a fickle cash crop.
If it gets too cold, it wilts and becomes unsellable. When temperatures get too warm, lettuce moves into its reproductive process and turns bitter. It’s also a tasty treat for insects and other pests.
Overcoming the challenges of growing lettuce has been something the Russ Peterson family has been confronting with science for the past year. The Petersons have built a greenhouse and established Cove View Gardens in Annabella — a hydroponic leafy vegetable growing operation.
Originally conceived as a multimillion dollar project that would employ 50 or more people, the scale of the development was reduced due to banks not wanting to loan money to it, Peterson said. He said the project was scaled down to a size his family could operate and finance.
The operation is the only lettuce-producing greenhouse north of Arizona, Peterson said. The lettuce from Cove View is harvested live, with the root system attached, and is already in some locally owned area stores and restaurants.
Peterson said if the experiment turns out to be successful, it could be expanded in the future. As for now, it is a family operation.
“Living lettuce will be five minutes old rather than five days old when you make your salad,” Peterson said. He said the nutritional value of lettuce drops rapidly once harvested.
“The half-life of lettuce is measured in hours,” Peterson said. He said for this reason, marketing of the lettuce is being focused locally, which ensures a fresher product and lower transportation costs.
Using a greenhouse allows growers to control the environment. While most farms in the area are now preparing for the early stages of cultivation, the lettuce grown in the greenhouse is currently ready to be harvested at a rate of approximately 400 heads a day.
“That sounds like a lot,” Peterson said. He said if a salmonella scare hits the country, the hydroponically grown plants would provide a source of lettuce locally.
“Each person in the county would have one head of lettuce every 57 days,” Peterson said. He said some 90 percent of lettuce eaten in the U.S. comes from California, Arizona and Mexico; 99 percent of which is grown in soil.
In hydroponics, plants are grown without soil, but in a solution of water and nutrients including nitrate and sulfate. This prevents soil borne food contaminants from entering into the lettuce. The hydroponic lettuce is also free of pesticides and preservatives.
The science of the hydroponic operation has many elements that require precise control, said Ruston Peterson, who oversees the day-to-day operation of the facility. A computer controls the temperature of the greenhouse with heaters, fans, vents and a water drip system similar to a swamp cooler.
Carbon dioxide levels are also monitored and controlled to help optimize the growing environment. Constant computer monitoring of the nutrient level in the closed water system is also required.
For more information about the hydroponic products, contact Ruston Peterson via e-mail at email@example.com.