CUMMING, Ga. – Marijuana and tastelessness have long been associated with hydroponics, but a new movement shedding chemicals and pesticides has the soilless crops reclaiming credibility and flavor.
Jeff Adams, a former contractor, has wanted to farm for quite some time and thought hydroponics was a plausible option. Adams and his wife, Ana, run Circle A Farms and its hydroponic greenhouse on Dishroom Road in Cumming. Hydroponics is the process of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water without soil.
“This is a way I could possibly make a living without farming on 140 acres,” he said.
He was first introduced to this method about two years ago and that’s when his research began.
Soilless gardening techniques have been around since the 17th century, but it wasn’t until about 1930s that any extensive development for hydroponics occurred.
Circle A grows lettuce and basil year-round in their greenhouse.
“The temperature is completely controlled and the air is filtered,” said Cheryl Howlin, director of sales for Circle A. “It’s a very clean environment and there’s no burn from direct sunlight. It’s grown exactly the same all year long.”
The process begins with seeds planted in rockwool cubes, which act like a sponge. Two weeks later, the seeds are transplanted into the hydroponic greenhouse and its water tubes.
The lettuce is then grown with water containing the proper nutrients and pH level. The water is constantly analyzed by a computer and recycled.
Circle A claims to use about a quarter of the water a traditional farm uses on their lettuce.
“Even though soil is the traditional way of growing lettuce, it’s not an essential part,” Howlin said. “Soil basically holds in the nutrients and holds in the water. So the roots expand into the soil and absorb all the water the roots need.”
An underlying issue with soil is location. It varies from region to region and the nutrients in the minerals can also vary.
“What we found was that most of the [soil grown] produce was very nutrient deficient,” Howlin said. “It does not have the minerals we think we’re getting.”
Some grocery stores purchase lettuce from California or Mexico, so the produce travels across the country before it ends up in a consumer’s refrigerator.
“Once a product is cut, that starts the dying process,” Howlin said. “Every day, it reduces in quality and nutrition. Getting it closer to when its cut provides more nutrition.”
In entering the marketplace, Circle A does face the issue of cost. Traditionally-grown lettuce prices are still lower for restaurants.
“Our lettuce is much bigger and tastes better, but the bottom line is that restaurants look at the price,” Howlin said. “It’s just a matter of time until restaurants recognize hydroponically grown produce is better.”
Currently, Circle A’s hydroponic lettuce can be eaten at three area restaurants, Ray’s at Killer Creek in Alpharetta, Avocados in Gainesville and The Blue Bicycle in Dawsonville.
The relative cost and higher quality of the produce has made it a profitable venture for Circle A.
“People are very surprised by how affordable it is,” Howlin said. “We’re selling twice the size of a lettuce head that’s in grocery store for just $3.”
In addition, Forsyth County School District has recently contacted Circle A to be their lettuce supplier in its farm to school initiative.
“Lettuce touches just about everybody’s life. Everybody has lettuce in their meals for the most part,” Howlin said. “It is a very important part of our lives, and we can make it nutritious, local and available.”
Circle A has a booth at the Cumming Fairgrounds’ farmers’ market, 235 Castleberry Road, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Saturdays. For more information visit www.circlealettuce.com.