Blue Ridge Hydroponics is owned and operated by Wayne Hawthorne. I first tried his lettuce a couple of years ago at the Tallahassee Farmer’s Market at Market Square (Saturdays), and its crisp, clean taste immediately won me over. No other lettuce that I’ve had comes close to matching the healthy taste and texture. For the past two years I have only referred to Wayne as “the lettuce man” to my family. In recent months, I decided it was time to learn his name and ask what I had been wanting for over a year – to visit the farm. Wayne was more than willing to have me come by, and the farm is only 30 minutes from my home. Since Henry was at work, I set out to Blue Ridge Hydroponics on my own.
According to Wikipedia, hydroponics is ” a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil. Terrestrial plants may be grown with their roots in the mineral nutrient solution only or in an inert medium, such as perlite, gravel, mineral wool, or coconut husk.” As it turns out, plants only need soil because it is an effective container for water and nutrients. Removing soil from the growing equation reduces the variables the farmer must keep in balance. It also allows farmers to grow high-quality produce on land that may have very poor quality soil. Now personally, I don’t consider hydroponics to be a panacea for the world’s food and nutrition problems. It does not restore topsoil, it cannot reverse desertification, and as far as I know it cannot support very large plants like fruit trees. But it is well-suited for growing dense yields of high-quality produce it what may normally be an inhospitable setting.
Although conventional growing methods can match the yields and quality of hydroponic systems, the hydroponic farmer can exert more control over the plants’ environment. Wayne has told me that his lettuces are “better than organic.” He injects nutrients distilled from seawater into his growing system to enhance the nutritional profile of his lettuces. I don’t know if this method alone makes the plants healthier, but I have always found that salads made with Wayne’s lettuces are crisper and more flavorful than any other salads I’ve had. Henry I follow Wayne’s advice of keeping his lettuce in green bags, which will help them last up to two weeks in the refrigerator.
I was blown away by Wayne’s hydroponics setup in his greenhouse. Black hoses connected each tray to the other, and I could hear the steady sound of the fans and pump cycling life into the greenhouse. The fans cool it down and the water pump cycles the nutrients into trays. And everywhere, beautiful, perfect, soil-less and clean green and purple lettuces call to me.
Lettuce season is ending in Tallahassee, but Wayne’s gorgeous girls will be back in the fall when the days are shorter and cooler. He recommends visiting at the 2011 New Leaf Market Farm Tour in October to see the greenhouse in full bloom.
Henry Miller contributed to this article.