Chase Werner and Matt Spitzer have been friends since middle school. Now, they’re business partners in Endless Sun Produce, growing salad greens and culinary herbs hydroponically through Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Incubator Farm Program, located at the IFFS Teaching Farm on Tryon Road in Raleigh.
Did you know that 90% of the lettuce consumed on the east coast is grown on the west coast in just two locations? Turn over a package of salad greens and you’ll see that it was grown in either Yuma, AZ in the summer or Salinas, CA in the winter. Yet it’s such a huge market staple – every restaurant has a salad on their menu. Chase and Matt are currently in the process of transitioning to growing all Rex Buttercrunch lettuce – a type of lettuce bred for hydroponic growing. When they harvest the head of lettuce, they stick it in a clamshell container, root ball and all, so it’s actually still living at the time of purchase. They aim to sell the lettuce hyper-locally – ideally all within Raleigh. They can sure beat west-coast lettuce on freshness and carbon footprint.
It makes sense for growing lettuce year-round. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants that uses no soil, just nutrient-enriched water.Chase and Matt’s hydroponic system is set up in a corner of IFFS’s greenhouse, taking advantage of the more climate-controlled environment. Otherwise, the plants will go to seed in summer or freeze during the winter.
There are sustainability benefits to using this method as well. It’s easier to grow organically in a greenhouse, as the contained space allows for the introduction of beneficial insects to control pests instead of chemicals. Hydroponics uses 70% less water and 60% less fertilizer than it would to grow lettuce in traditional soil-based systems, and it’s 3-5 more space efficient. With hydroponics, the contained system means less evaporation and no fertilizer run-off. It takes a gallon of water to grow a head of lettuce – but the water in this system re-circulates from a 45 gallon reservoir that they only have to top off every few days, powered by a low-wattage pump that operates 24/7.
Hydroponics systems are adaptable and can be operated in a variety of small urban spaces. He sees them as a key part of the future of farming, as arable land decreases and farming in cities increases. Because the systems are often built at waist height, they’re more accessible for folks in wheelchairs and mean less bending over to harvest for able-bodied folks as well.
It’s also a great way to create a dependable revenue stream for urban farmers – all it takes is math to figure out how much you can produce on a weekly basis, and it’s a low input but high output system. According to Chase, one farmer can make a living off of a ¼ acre. Chase and Matt currently produce 60 heads of lettuce per week, growing on a 6 ft X 12 ft hydroponic system. From seed to harvest, they can finish a head of lettuce in just five weeks.
Plans for the future
Chase and Matt are not newcomers to entrepreneurship or to hydroponics. Now holding a business degree with a minor in horticulture science from NC State, Chase actually built his first hydroponic system when he was in high school out of his parents’ garage and sold lettuce door-to-door. Knowing that he wanted to make a living farming, Chase had heard about the IFFS Teaching Farm from various friends, and stopped by one day to talk to Farm Manager and Educator Sun Butler. Chase shared pictures of the system he had built, and soon after, he and Matt were officially part of the Incubator Program and setting up shop in the greenhouse.
They sold their lettuce at the IFFS farm stand this summer, plan to participate in IFFS’s winter CSA, and operate a home-delivery service in University Park. Eventually, they plan to sell at other farmers markets, to restaurants, and in local grocery stores as well.
Chase currently works full-time as store manager at Fifth Season, a hydroponics, homebrew, and organic gardening store. Matt works there part-time, and spends the rest of his time on the Endless Sun Produce endeavors. The team’s goal is to eventually make farming their full-time job. They’ve got a business plan worked out and are in the process of looking for land to farm on more permanently.
The IFFS Incubator Farm Program supports and grows new viable, independent farm businesses and helps build a healthy, hunger-free local food system by serving as a model new-farmer program. The knowledge of how to grow food is an important step toward developing a locally-owned food system that builds self-sufficiency and community power. The more we understand about growing and preparing food, the more access we have and the healthier we are.