Nebraska hydroponic farm provides year-round option for quick produce | TheFencePost.com

Nebraska hydroponic farm provides year-round option for quick produce

Mary Jane Bruce
For The Fence Post

In a Grand Island, Neb., grocery store, customers find California lettuce that was in the field two weeks ago. They can also buy a fresher product from a nearby Nebraska farm picked the day before.

Nick Griffin, the produce manager at Hy-Vee said customers like the lettuce because it has a longer shelf life.

"With locally grown items, we're able to get the consumer the freshest product possible," Griffin said. "And we have a relationship with these growers so we can get deals on prices and offer the customer a better price than something that isn't locally grown."

The red and green Bibb lettuce comes from Oak Ridge Farms, a hydroponic greenhouse near Ord, Neb. Owners Ryan and Carrie David harvest on Saturdays and make their deliveries on Sundays. Inside the clamshell package, the lettuce is sold with roots intact, allowing it to live on the counter for days or even weeks longer than cut lettuce.

Hydroponic farming is the method of growing a crop without soil. In the greenhouse on Ryan and Carrie's farm, lettuce grows in long troughs using nutrient-filled water. On any given day year round, visitors to the greenhouse can see a crop in various stages of development, from seedlings to mature heads of lettuce.

The process starts with seeds placed in mats made of Rockwool, a horticultural growing medium originally used in the construction industry for insulation. Plants are fed with a steady stream of water, spiked with a customized nutrient solution. As the seeds sprout, they're transplanted into trays and placed in troughs that carry the solution to the crop.

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Critical to the operation is the computer that controls three pumps providing for the care and feeding of the plants. The roots of the plant float in the water and soak up the nutrient solution that is tailored to fit the needs of the water, the environment and the crop.

"The computer does all the testing for us to make sure the solution has the correct amount of nutrients, that the pH level is correct and that the plants are getting what they need," Ryan said. "It controls the temperature of the water because if it gets below 55 degrees, it slows the root growth."

SEED TO HARVEST

In the winter, it takes about 10-11 weeks to go from seed to harvest. That time is cut to about six weeks in the summer when there's more sunshine. Oak Ridge Farms produces about 1,100 heads of lettuce a week in the winter and almost 2,000 during summer weeks.

Starting the business was a challenge and the Davids did a lot of research before diving in. They bought the greenhouse system from Ohio-based CropKing and attended a two-day workshop.

"There's definitely a learning curve," Carrie said. "We went through a period of trial and error and we made mistakes. But we've learned along the way and it's been very rewarding, just knowing we provide a good product. We're reaching places we never thought we'd get to when we started."

The Davids sell lettuce to grocery stores, hospitals and school systems across Nebraska. Boxes of lettuce are distributed in a refrigerated van direct to the customer or distributor who handles deliveries in Omaha.

Eventually, Ryan and Carrie want to expand the business and add greenhouses on the farm. In the next five to 10 years Ryan hopes to have two more bays available for production.

Oak Ridge Farms was a dream of Ryan's mother, Barb David, who died in 2015. She was passionate about gardening and active in the Farm to School program sponsored by the Nebraska Center for Rural Affairs. As a teacher, she liked to share the farm experience with students and was involved in the greenhouse from seeding to packaging.

"When I walk into the greenhouse to work, I think about Mom and I know she'd like how it's grown," Ryan said. "I'm proud of what we've done."

— Bruce is a freelance reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at mbruce1@unl.edu, (402) 472-8512 or on Twitter @mjstweets.

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