Good Harvest Farms Builds a Business on Lettuce

3/31/2012 10:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

STRASBURG, Pa. — Chris Powell harvests high-value, high-nutrition lettuce (i.e., not iceberg lettuce) 52 weeks a year and sells every head at full retail price. Powell, the farming son of a sailor, bought a 35-acre farm in Lancaster County in 1990. The previous owners had some greenhouse space and they grew vegetables for market. Powell has transformed that modest operation into a cutting edge agriculture enterprise that uses up-to-the-minute technology, marketing and management practices to generate year-round income.

Good Harvest Farms, the name for the Powell family business, has been producing hydroponic lettuce for more than a decade in a 4,000-square-foot, double-poly-walled greenhouse built in 2001. They grow red leaf, green leaf, salad bowl, Dutch (also called Boston) and some red oak lettuces. They harvest every Tuesday and Thursday and sell the entire crop at the Lancaster County Farmers Market in Wayne, Pa., which is in Delaware County and part of Philadelphia’s prosperous Main Line region where the median family income tops $105,000, and the average home sells for well over $700,000.

The folks in Wayne and thereabouts love their home-grown local lettuce and they’re willing to pay for it.

“Buy Fresh Buy Local is huge for us,” Powell said, “And it’s growing tremendously. We saw it really starting maybe 10 years ago, and every once in a while I think it’s going to peak, but it just keeps going. It feels like Buy Fresh Buy Local is just getting started.”

Another trend that Powell feels will grow in the years to come is community supported agriculture (CSA).

“We started a CSA here on the farm last year,” he said. “Our members come to the farm for pickups every Tuesday and Friday, and our CSA has grown tremendously.”

Powell promotes traffic both to his Strasburg, Pa., and Wayne locations with aggressive promotions on Facebook, radio, newspapers, direct mail, classes at the greenhouse, special sales and eBlast — a state-of-the-art paperless form of direct mail.

Powell was born in Bucks County, Pa., and his grandfather was a farmer, but his dad was in the Navy and the family moved around a bit. Powell spent his high school years in Connecticut’s orchard country, where he had an after-school job hauling apple crates from the field to the barn. He enjoyed the job, got more responsibilities, stayed with the business after graduation and eventually became a partner. But he wanted his own land, and in 1990 bought his farm in Lancaster County where, he said, “ ... land was half the cost and twice as productive” as it was in Connecticut.

At first, Powell, with the help of his wife, Cindy, wholesaled vegetables and flowers through auctions and stores. They soon started a roadside stand, and joined the Lancaster County Farmers Market in 1998. The roadside stand is now home to their retail ornamental business and their CSA, and is where they also sell some of the greenhouse lettuce and herbs.

The Powells now have three children — son, Luke, is 11 years old and his twin sisters, Madeline and Abigail, are 10. All three are students in the Lampeter-Strasburg school district.

In addition to the greenhouse produce, Powell farms 25 28 acres of crops like zucchini, cantaloupes, lima beans, French beans, wax beans, regular tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes and fennel. If the folks in Wayne will buy it, he’ll grow it. And some of the things he doesn’t grow, he’ll buy at wholesale. He even buys iceberg lettuce. Good Harvest Farms has 55 linear feet of display space in the Wayne market, and on a typical market day it will be totally restocked three or four times.

While buyers willingly pay more for Good Harvest Farms lettuce, it’s not like a lettuce ransom. On Monday, a head of green leaf lettuce was going for $2.36 at a Lancaster County supermarket. Powell’s price in Wayne, depending on the season, would be $2.49 to $2.99. But price isn’t the only, or even the main, consideration for his customers.

“They’re concerned about carbon footprint, the energy it takes to grow and transport their food,” he said. “They’re concerned about safety. And nutrition. Freshness.”

“We don’t grow iceberg lettuce partly because it’s not loaded with nutrients, but also because we want to grow what they can’t get in the grocery store. We picked out the best four or five varieties for our market and we stick with them.”

That focus and attention to customer preference has made Powell’s lettuce greenhouse the most profitable one-twelfth of an acre on his farm, and one of the main engines of his business. Lettuce is babied from the moment the seed is inserted into a block of Oasis propagation medium until the mature plant is plucked from its hydroponic soil-less growing tray 6 to 12 weeks later, depending on the time of year.

The seeds germinate in a humidity- and temperature-controlled nursery under grow lights that are on 20-22 hours a day. Seedlings emerge in four days, and go to a nursery about 12 days later. The nursery is a group of specialized trays, called gullies, that are the most visible part of Powell’s NFT growing system. Nurient film technique employs a trickle of nutrient laden water constantly circulating around the plant roots. There’s no soil.

“Soil doesn’t grow plants,” Powell points out. “It’s the nutrients in the soil that grow the plants.”

After two weeks in the nursery, the teenage plants — Powell’s term — are placed in gullies with the holes spaced farther apart, and that’s where they stay until they’re harvested.

The water in the gullies circulates constantly. It flows into one end of a gully, flows by gravity to a catchment gully, and then to a reservoir where it is aerated, heated and replenished with nutrients.

Lettuce is a good year-round hydroponic crop, Powell said, because input costs are low, it grows well in cool temperatures — he doesn’t heat the lettuce house to more than 55 degrees — and there is virtually no waste. Any less-than-absolutely-perfect plants are chopped up for salad mix.

Propane is used to fire the two tube-boilers that heat the greenhouses. One greenhouse grows lettuce and also some herbs. The other house is for ornamentals. Powell is looking into a system that would burn miscanthus grass grown on the farm to supply all his heating needs. He figures it would take 8 to 10 acres of his marginal land to grow enough large square bales to keep his boilers going. He didn’t have a timetable for the new heating system, but a look around the Good Harvest Farms operation would be enough to convince anybody that once Chris Powell decides to do something, it gets done.

How does he feel about the future of farming? Is the farm business mantra still “get big or get out?”

Powell doesn’t think so, at least not for operations that can tap into the Buy Fresh Buy Local market. For those people, he said, “The family farm will be smaller and doing more with fewer acres. They’ll be farming intensely, in a way that appeals to the consumer, and producing the varieties that their consumers want.”

The Good Harvest Farms website can be found at www.goodharvestfarms.com.

Dick Wanner can be reached at rwanner.eph<\@>lnpnews.com, or by phone at 717-419-4703.


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