Many of our 4P Foods community members are very familiar with the hydroponic lettuce that comes in their bag each week from Fresh2o Growers in Stevensburg, VA. Whether the lettuce comes in a head of tall leaves like their Romaine lettuce, or in a round bouquet of short, curly leaves like their Oakleaf lettuce, it’s hard to deny that Fresh2o has some of the prettiest, and freshest lettuce around!
We went out to visit Fresh2o in Stevensburg, VA to learn a little more about their process and hear just why their lettuce is so fresh and healthy. We met with Mary Scott, the General Manager at Fresh2o Growers, who gave us a tour of the greenhouses and explained why the lettuce stays so fresh when picked.
Fresh2o Growers, Inc. is a family-owned greenhouse business that specializes in growing fresh, local hydroponic lettuce both sustainably and efficiently. Joe Van Wingerden began production in the Spring of 2013 with the help of his son, Ben Van Wingerden. Joe brought over forty years of experience growing hydroponic lettuce as well as installing over 4 million square feet of greenhouses. With this experience he started Fresh2o using his own proprietary growing system and patented packaging, leading to the characteristic hydroponic lettuce that we look forward to munching on every week.
When we visited the Fresh2o greenhouses, we were quite excited because we had been so impressed with the quality of the Fresh2o lettuce. We were initially struck by the endless rows of bright green and red heads of lettuce, the same vibrant-looking lettuce that we receive in our shares each week. The view was truly exquisite!
First off, Mary Scott showed us where the heads of lettuce begin: in seed trays. When they are ready, the young plants are transplanted into a movable trough system. The trough system automatically moves to give more space to the lettuce plants as they grow. Using this system, Fresh2o is able to maximize space and grow 40% more heads of lettuce per square foot!
The water is infused with natural compounds to gain optimum nutrient levels for the plants. The water flows through the troughs to nourish the lettuce, and afterwards is recycled back into the system to eliminate waste. Since water is such a precious resource, we greatly appreciate when our growers are being good stewards of the land and the water.
The greenhouses are a controlled environment for the plants, creating the perfect micro-environment for them to thrive. Because the plants are inside the greenhouses, they are relatively free of the stress of pests and the harsh winter weather (meaning you can have hydroponic lettuce in your bag year-round!) During the winter, grow lamps are used to help give the young lettuce plants an extra boost of light. However, the cold temperatures are not a concern since the greenhouses are kept very warm. The temperature and humidity levels are controlled and can be increased during winter to make sure the plants are warm and cozy even during freezing temperatures.
As far as growing time goes, it takes about 5 to 6 weeks to grow a head of lettuce, depending on the variety grown. The nutrients in the water and the controlled environment of the greenhouse allows for a much more efficient growing time, which also reduces the amount of energy needed to grow plants – yet another way that Fresh2o is using technology to grow lettuce sustainably. They can grow up to three million heads of lettuce in a year, comprised of 8 different varieties including Bibb, Oakleaf, Batavian, and Romaine, in both green and red varieties. Every now and then they’ll experiment with some new varieties… and we are more than happy to try them out and introduce them to our members!
You may have noticed that there is a black plastic ring at the end of each head of lettuce grown by Fresh2o. That black ring is called a “grow ring”. It is used to grow each head of lettuce from seed to plant! In fact, the lettuce that you receive in your bag each week is still quite alive and thriving. It’s still attached to it’s roots through the grow ring. That is why Fresh2o’s lettuce stays fresh for so long. Because lettuce also starts to lose its nutritional value when cut from the root, Fresh2o’s lettuce also has around 400 times more nutritional value than field-grown lettuce. Now you can feel even better about munching that salad this week!
Even though they don’t need to use pesticides for their lettuce, Fresh2o can’t technically be certified organic because of the natural nutrients they use in the water – iron, nitrogen, magnesium, and potassium – essentially a “multi-vitamin” for the young plants. However, they use no chemicals in their growing process, and were only forced to use an organic pesticide a couple of times during a “butterfly incident” in the summer when it was especially humid.
Despite their strong dedication to using sustainable growing practices and not using chemicals on their plants, they still don’t qualify for a “USDA Organic” certification. According to Mary Scott, some people are critical of them right off the bat because they lack the organic certification. However, she feels that if people would just take the time to visit and learn about Fresh2o’s process, they would agree that Fresh2o’s practices are “better than organic”.
We love to support these growers because we know their story, and we know why and how they are growing our food with the best of care for our natural environment and our health. Our goal at 4P Foods is to not just give you the great food that is grown by our family of farms, but also to share with you the story that goes along with it.