HEADS UP: Lambrechts Are Seeing Green In Hydroponic Lettuce
When Joe and Patty Lambrecht of Wetumpka launched their first foray into the world of greenhouse tomatoes, they didn’t realize they were on the right track with the wrong crop.In very short order, the Lambrechts’ greenhouse was a disaster. “Our crop was gone,” Joe said. “I’d put the wrong heat in it. I’d put too many plants in the house. I had a white fly invasion I couldn’t control. Everything you could do wrong, I did.”Then, on a fact-finding mission to the Mississippi Greenhouse Tomato Short Course where they hoped to find out what went wrong, they found their answer in hydroponic lettuce.”We thought we could do better,” Joe said. “In 12 months’ time, we could make more money with lettuce than we could with the same square feet of tomatoes, and we could do it year ’round, not just six or nine months a year.”In fact, the Lambrechts were so convinced of the value of “going green,” they abandoned the tiny 16-foot by 24-foot greenhouse where their tomatoes had failed and began building a new 35-foot by 72-foot greenhouse in March 2007. Inside, they installed a “float” system where five rows of tables, each 60 feet long by 4 feet wide, hold all the water and nutrients — minus soil, of course — needed for the 3,000 heads of lettuce which sprout through thin sheets of foam insulation.On May 2, they planted their first lettuce seed. Three weeks later, with the thermometer hugging 100 degrees, the Lambrechts were selling cool, crisp heads of lettuce from ice coolers at nearby farmers markets in Auburn and Montgomery.”We’d pull it, put it in a cooler and take it to market,” said Joe. “We’d take 20 heads … we’d take 40 heads … we just kept on going, and now we’ll sell 100 heads of lettuce at a market, and we’ll sell out every time. We’ve exceeded our own expectations. We’re way ahead of what we thought we could do in the first nine months, way way ahead of it.”In addition to their market success, the Lambrechts had a ready-made customer in the Marriott hotel chain. Thanks to an established relationship through the Lambrechts’ successful granary operation, their lush leafy green Romaine and Butter Head lettuce quickly found its way into five of seven Marriott restaurants in Alabama, including those on the Robert Trent Jones golf trail in Birmingham, Opelika, Montgomery and Prattville “They came to us,” says Joe. “But we’ve been doing business with the Marriotts a long time. The chef at the Ross Bridge resort in Birmingham has been using our products since before he was a chef there. We already had him as a customer. That’s how we got in with that Marriott. Then, in Opelika, we just walked in and said, ‘Here’s what we’ve got.’ And they started using our products.””We’ve been lucky though because they knew what we had, and it was a good product already,” said Patty. “So they were not questioning the lettuce’s quality. They knew we would do a good job with it.”When a Marriott chef recently decided that he wanted heads of lettuce that were only half the size of what he’d been receiving, the Lambrechts were overjoyed.For the Marriott, that meant the sous chef would only need to chop off the roots, wash it and — voila! — there’s your salad. For Joe, it meant he could boost production from 3,000 heads to 5,000 per planting simply by reducing the spacing between plants. Plus, he’d earn the same amount on the smaller heads as the larger ones.Other chef requests have prompted the Lambrechts to diversify further with beet tops, three kinds of microgreens, spinach, a red curly lettuce variety called La Rosa, a “hamburger” lettuce and even a crop Joe personally dislikes — arugula.”Joe doesn’t like arugula, but I love it,” said Patty. “And because he didn’t like it, he was like, ‘Nobody will buy that stuff!'”
“I figured it was a bad idea,” said Joe. “That stuff is nasty! A little bit of that goes a long way.””Well, it depends on if you like it or not,” countered Patty.The chefs obviously like it. “You take it down to those chefs and they’ll eat a handful,” said Joe. “That’s just one of the things that helps pay the power bill, helps pay the debt service, helps pay the fuel to deliver it, and it’s a good blend with the other products. … We want to grow what people have shown us they will buy. I wish that we’d been that smart, to think that we knew all this would happen, but this has really been customer-driven.””Customer-driven” is a word the Lambrechts use often at Oakview Farms, a hilly 10-acre spread where goats graze, multi-colored roosters and chickens dart about freely. The goats are there simply to draw people; the chickens are there to lay eggs.At Oakview, everything seems to have a purpose — most of it intended to generate traffic to Joe’s granary where grist mills inside a 1,600-square-foot building grind out cornmeal, flour, flax, buckwheat and grits for individuals and luxury hotel chains alike.”You’ve got to diversify,” Joe says, noting that everything from the farm’s yard eggs to its three-acre blueberry patch and its honey draws in customers. “It’s a combination business plan that’s not just one item. Our mill pays the bills, and all the others just add to it.”It sounds easy, but Joe says he’s had plenty of help, especially from Dr. Joe Kemble, an Extension specialist and associate horticulture professor at Auburn University. “We wear Kemble out,” Joe said with a laugh.Kemble, however, says that he’s likewise learned from Joe, a retired automobile service department manager. Together, they are discovering how best to handle the temperature extremes of the Southeast by exploring ways to cool the greenhouse in the summer and warm it in the winter as well as testing various varieties.While hydroponic lettuce does present its own challenges, Kemble says it’s a crop well suited for the small family farm. “If you asked me about the potential of hydroponic farming 10 years ago, I would’ve said, ‘I’m really not sure.’ If you’d asked me that question five years ago, I would’ve said, ‘There appears to be a lot of potential.’ Now, if you ask me that question, I have to say, “We’re not producing enough, and the demand is actually there.'””When he first got into this, Joe told me he was looking for a way to get more people to come in to see his mill,” Kemble recalled. “Now, I’m not so sure it’s not the other way around.” For more information, call Oakview Farms at (334) 567-9221 or visit wwwOakviewFarms.com.