Endless Summer Harvest’s co-owner is 50-year-old Mary Ellen Taylor, an effusively cheerful redhead who has plenty to be happy about. The economic doom and gloom that shades the news every day seems to have passed her right by.
“I’m living the dream!” she gushed as we made our way past rows of watercress, arugula and several types of lettuce — butterhead, red oak, romaine, frisee — most about the size of a softball.
“We do 4,000 heads a week as bagged blends or living heads, and we sell 4,000 a week. The lettuce must go to market, because a germinated seed is waiting to take its place. I can take that to the bank, because I have cash flow all year.”
Pristine heads of living lettuce attached to their roots in a compact 11
2-inch cube sell for $5, as do seven-ounce bag blends.
Taylor says her living lettuce tastes fresher than the standard packaged heads because the plants are able to sustain themselves after they are sold.
“There is no deterioration that comes from being cut off from its root source,” she explains. The lettuce is not pre-washed, because there is nothing to wash off — no dirt, no pesticides — and therefore does not undergo the deterioration that exposure to water encourages.
Living heads of lettuce, refrigerated in bags that allow them to breathe but buffer them from the cold air, last for three weeks; bagged blends have a shelf life of two weeks.
Business is so good that Taylor plans to add a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse in the spring next to the two 6,000-square-foot greenhouses she already has, which she estimates will at least double her production. The two greenhouses take up a quarter-acre of space and produce the equivalent of a 12-acre farm, she says, but without the labor, equipment and risk involved in a land-based crop operation.
“I don’t have to figure on losing the best part of my crop to deer or pests, and there’s no wind, drought or flood to worry about,” Taylor says.
She got involved in hydroponics serendipitously. While she reminisced with an old friend at her 20th high school reunion 13 years ago, the two women’s husbands got into a conversation about hydroponic gardening and set a plan in motion to start up a project. The friend’s husband, David Lentz, had the vision and the land in Purcellville; Taylor’s husband, Wallace Reed Jr., had gardening knowledge, as he was and still is a grower at the U.S. Botanic Garden.
The enterprise started off as a weekend gig, with Lentz and Reed acquiring equipment from American Hydroponics, a supplier in Arcata, Calif., and a greenhouse from a vendor in Canada. They scrapped an initial idea to grow tomatoes and opted for lettuce.