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Hydroponic Vegetables in Winter

The primary heads of lettuce wouldn't develop from Dan Yarnick's comedian for several weeks, but he refused to queer one of his large customers.

Eat'n Commons was hunt for a season distribute of chromatic sheet lettuce for its restaurants. It revolved to Yarnick, who has been merchandising them produce from his Indiana County farm for quaternary life.

Yarnick had hundreds of heads thriving in soil-free trays in his nursery. They had been healthy since Feb.

“This is great, Dan,” said Jamie Moore, director of sourcing and sustainability at Eat'n Park, as he stepped into a greenhouse one recent March afternoon. “This is beautiful.”

Moore ran his hands along rows of verdant leaves shooting up from trays that were being pumped with nutrient-rich water, a growing method known as hydroponics. It was part of an experiment that, if successful, would give Eat'n Park a local supply of the leafy vegetable during the winter and reduce its dependence on produce from drought-stricken California.

California farms supply the majority of many of the nation's most popular fruits and vegetables, including lettuce. But a five-year drought has hurt the state's farms — the volume of lettuce grown there has declined 14 percent since 2010, according to the United States Department of Agriculture — and caused some in the food industry to look for more local sources.

Besides Eat'n Park, a handful of supermarkets in Pennsylvania — including Giant Eagle — have stocked their stores during winter months with vegetables, herbs and fruits grown hydroponically in local greenhouses.

It's not so much that supplies are tight or that prices are out of control, food companies say. But there may come a day when that happens, and the California drought has convinced some restaurants and grocers of the need to diversify their suppliers, said John McClelland, chief operating officer at Paragon Foods, a Marshall-based food distributor.

“I think it's a conversation that's starting to come up,” McClelland said. “This drought has pushed to the forefront that we need to think about this.”

A challenge for Pennsylvania's farms is figuring out a profitable way of growing vegetables during the winter. Greenhouses can be expensive because of the energy needed to light and heat them. Lettuce was a good product to experiment with because it grows fast and needs less light than other crops like tomatoes, making it easier to adapt.

Looking ahead to another year of drought in California, Moore asked Yarnick late last year whether he was willing to grow lettuce hydroponically at a time when the ground is frozen in Pennsylvania.

Yarnick agreed, recognizing that there would be benefits for his farm.

“This also brings in revenue for me for the times in farming when there's nothing here,” Yarnick said.

There is a price to pay for the shift. Yarnick estimates hydroponic lettuce costs $1 per head to grow, compared with 75 cents for field-grown.

Others have tried and failed to make the economics work. Robert Trimbur, owner of Spring Valley Gardens in West Sunbury, grew hydroponic lettuce for more than a dozen years. Though hydroponics can result in better quality because farmers can control the nutrients and fertilizer flowing into the plants, the profit wasn't there, he said.

Light during the winter was too inconsistent, and installing grow lights is expensive, Trimbur said, noting that doing so cuts into the margins on an already low-priced crop.

“The most we could get was 75 cents to 95 cents a head,” he said. “By the time you grew it, harvested it, put it in a container ... there's no money left for the house. The numbers aren't there.”

There also are concerns about meeting quantity demands. Big Burrito Restaurant Group buys a lot of local produce, particularly tomatoes, though most of it is grown during the summer and canned for the winter, said executive chef Bill Fuller. He has purchased fresh greenhouse-grown tomatoes from Canada during the winter, but only on limited occasions. It's expensive and could never meet the restaurant chain's year-round needs, he said. Even lettuce would be a challenge.

“To do the volume of lettuce that we need, in hydroponic, that's a huge amount of area under one roof,” he said.

Eat'n Park isn't asking Yarnick to supply all of its lettuce — only green leaf, which it adds to a salad mix and buys in much smaller quantities than a variety like iceberg. Last year, Eat'n Park bought 104,000 pounds of green leaf lettuce, with the bulk of that — 72,000 pounds — coming from California.

Whether Yarnick can replace the supply from California is what he and Moore are trying to figure out. As pleased as Moore was with Yarnick's quality, a head of his lettuce yielded less than one from California when chopped up and measured by volume and weight.

Moore said he is going to give Yarnick's lettuce another week to grow and test it again.

“This is an experiment not only for Dan, but for us,” Moore said.

Moore and Yarnick said they are eager to make it work. Having locally grown lettuce diversifies the supply chain for Eat'n Park and brings a cache. Buying local food has become popular with consumers, they noted. It is also fresher and cheaper to ship than California produce because it's not traveling across the country. That allows Eat'n Park to pay a higher price to Yarnick without realizing a higher net cost.

Yarnick is confident he can make the economics work. He said he'll find a way to produce it at a price Eat'n Park is willing to pay, and if they need more lettuce, he's willing to make that investment, too.

“We'll expand,” Yarnick said, his voice raising above the whir of a greenhouse fan. “If it works, I'll build a house with lighting and do it year-round.”

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