Grower Hopes to Use Hydroponic Lettuce to Educate Young Entrepreneurs

11/24/2012 7:00 AM
By Jane W. Graham Virginia Correspondent

DUBLIN, Va. — Butterhead lettuce on sale in a local produce market is the first clue people here in Pulaski County are getting about one resident’s passion for lettuce and for using it to help young people learn about food, its production and its ability to earn them money.

“Pesticide free, living butterhead lettuce with roots,” is the message on the lettuce label. “For extended storage, rinse roots with cold water and return to container.”

The grower: My Green Life Pulaski, Wish Gardens Hydroponic Greenhouse, Dublin, Va”

Wish Gardens Hydroponic Greenhouse is located near the entrance to Brenda Turner’s estate on the banks of Claytor Lake. It is part of a structure that also houses Turner’s developing candle-making project.

Turner talks with passion about her interest in lettuce, saying it set her on the road to developing her state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse. She also has a conventional greenhouse and gardens on the property, where she grows vegetables, flowers and herbs during the summer months.

The actual planting and caring for the plants is done by her employee, Carolyn Malin, who first learned about horticulture working at a local nursery that is open only part of the year.

For Turner, the project is not about growing lettuce for her to sell, but using the technology as a teaching tool in schools to help students learn about growing foods, nutrition and healthy eating, and becoming entrepreneurs.

“My intent is not to sell,” Turner said, “but to grow lettuce, learn to grow. A community can eat a lot of lettuce. If the schools and hospitals agreed to buy from this community project it can become profitable.”

She envisions a local school hydroponic greenhouse where students can study about plants, grow and sell them, and earn money working in it, thus learning the benefits of work and how to establish a small business. She sees local schools and hospitals using the healthier food produced in a clean environment as a way of introducing better eating habits to the community.

Turner has actually presented her concepts to a local school system, but they have not been adopted it at this time, she said.

Malin explained the process of growing plants in water with added minerals during a tour of the greenhouse, where lettuce and tomatoes were growing on a typical November day.

She starts the seeds in rock wool material that breaks down into one-inch cubes to be inserted into channels after the plants have grown to the proper size. Each cube has a hole in the exact center where the seed is placed.

Malin said the seeds don’t have to be covered to germinate. Moisture is added to the rock wool morning and evening.

When the plants are about 2 inches tall and have four true leaves, the cubes are broken apart and placed in the channels or trays where the roots are bathed with a solution of nutrients for about six weeks, she said. At that point they are ready to harvest.

One of the learning experiences Turner and Malin have had is that the original double-decker system of trays for the channels did not work well on cloudy days. The upper trays shaded the lower ones, keeping them from getting enough light. They removed four trays from the top deck, Malin said, enabling enough light to reach the plants on the bottom deck.

The area did not suffer many consequences from Superstorm Sandy like parts of the Northeast coast, but the storm did have one effect on the lettuce in the greenhouse here. The heads began leaning a little to one side, seeking light during an extended period of overcast days.

Malin said the facility is cooled in summer and heated in winter, making it possible to grow vegetables year-round.

Turner started the greenhouse as more or less a model. As it began to produce, she gave lettuce to neighbors. As supplies grew, Malin took them to the produce stand, a grocery store and a couple of restaurants to see if she could sell them. These businesses all now sell or use the lettuce. If the production is more abundant than the demand, Turner gives the excess to The Daily Bread, a local community project that provides daily meals to the hungry.

Turner has developed a chart — she calls it a road map to “real sustain-ability” — to explain what she calls “My Green Life Pulaski,” the logo that appears on her lettuce cartons. On it she gives her definition of “real sustain-ability” and states that My Green Life is real food, real people, real community, real jobs and real future.

Her definition of real sustain-ability:

Sus-tain [sus-steyn] v. 1. To supply with food, drink or other nourishment 2. To keep up or keep going as an action or process, to sustain a community effort 3. To keep from giving way as under trial or affliction.

Abil-i-ty [uh-bil-i-tee}-n. power or capacity to do or act physically, mentally, legally, morally, financially, etc. 2. Competence in an activity or occupation because of skill, training or other qualifications.

Sustain-ability = community education, awareness and action qualified to supply the capacity, power and solutions that have lasting value, benefits and nourishment for all involved.

She poses the question of how to achieve a real green life and says it can be done by asking real questions and “acting on the real abilities of our own community.”

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