Sourced: Lettuce that doesn’t mind the cold

Bearing in mind that leafy greens and I become somewhat estranged during the protein-, fat- and carb-laden stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, I cleverly scheduled a visit to Endless Summer Harvest for the end of December.

The Purcellville farm produces picture-perfect hydroponic lettuces and salad greens year-round and sells them to Washington area chefs, specialty grocery stores and farmers market customers, even through the winter.

Three heads of butterhead lettuce are harvested with the roots intact in Purcellville, VA.

Three heads of butterhead lettuce are harvested with the roots intact in Purcellville, VA.

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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.

“About 11 years ago, we noticed clamshells of hydroponic lettuce showing up in grocery stores, and our research indicated that 90 percent of Americans eat lettuce,” said Taylor, adding that, unlike tomatoes, lettuce grows well in cold weather, takes only 30 to 40 days to grow and isn’t prone to pest infestations.

Also at that time, Taylor was laid off from her job as a national sales director for a security consulting firm and turned her energy to growing Endless Summer Harvest’s business. They started selling at the Purcellville farmers market, then begged to get into the Arlington and Takoma Park winter markets.

Persistence paid off. At one time, Endless Summer Harvest was in 12 markets. Now it sells in five plum locations, including FreshFarm Market’s Penn Quarter (not open in the winter) and Dupont Circle locations, where a loyal clientele consistently snatches up the greens.

“We are either riding the wave of demand for pesticide-free products or we are helping to create it,” Taylor says. “We would not have had this kind of success 10 years ago.” They added the second greenhouse in 2006.

Taylor, who bought out Lentz in November of 2010, loves to rattle off three-letter designations to explain hydroponics. She uses a nutrient film technique (NFT) to grow her crop and a computer system to maintain a controlled agricultural environment (CAE), and she plans to implement a raft floating technique (RFT) in the new greenhouse.

The NFT, in layman’s terms, is this: Seeds are germinated in petroleum-based cubes, one seed per cube. They then spend 10 days under lamps in an on-site nursery, after which time they are large enough to transfer to the greenhouse. There, the root cubes are settled into long rows of waist-high PVC gutters, and a constant film of recirculating, nutrient-rich water nourishes them for 30 to 40 days, until the plants are large enough to harvest.

(In the RFT, plants grow on floating ponds in an efficient continual rotation, kind of like cars going through a pleasant ride at a water park; the plants start as seeds at the beginning of the ride.)

A computer regulates everything: the 43 high-pressure sodium lights and heater that maintain summerlike light and temperature; the shade cloths that come down at night or when it’s too sunny outside; the pH, nutrient balance and flow of the water and the water system; and carbon dioxide emitted into the air to boost growth.

Taylor’s sister, father and husband help out, along with 12 part-time staffers she refers to as a “mom squad” of highly educated women who had high-powered jobs and now are either retired or raising families in Loudoun County.

“It’s nepotism at its finest. We pay a lot more than minimum wage, but nowhere near what they bring to the table. They show up on time, they work, they’re not texting, they cover for each other and they recruit if there is turnover, which is rarely,” Taylor boasted as she filled my arms with bags of lettuces, micro greens and large bunches of sweet Genovese basil, which she refers to as “four dollars of luxury.”

Considering that each basil plant, if maintained properly, will last for months, that’s a bargain compared with the tiny plastic boxes sold in grocery chain stores for $3.

I particularly liked Taylor’s red sorrel, whose beet-red-veined leaves resemble those of Swiss chard. Back home, I paired them with her watercress in a soup that highlights the greens’ earthy and citrusy overtones. Plucked leaves, shallots, garlic, broth, a bit of curry powder and a cubed potato (for thickening) all went into a pot for quick cooking, then into a blender before being finished with cream, garnished with sorrel and served; 40 minutes start to finish.

Taking a cue from chef Johnny Monis at Little Serow in Dupont Circle, I made a Thai salad of cooked ground chicken and shrimp, fish sauce, curry paste, red onion, scallions and cilantro and served it with an array of Endless Summer Harvest’s vibrant leaves, to be used as wrappers for rolling up spoonfuls of the piquant mixture.

When you’re paying a premium for quality, let the greens shine. Avoid goopy dressings and extraneous ingredients. For the ultra-simple one-bowl Italian salad I make at home all the time, I take care to dress each leaf well in a large bowl and arrange them one at a time, like petals of an open flower, on a dinner plate. I pile sun-dried tomatoes and red onions in the center and finish with a bit of Parmesan cheese. Taylor’s micro tatsoi and sunflower greens add a tasty flourish.

I can’t honestly state that the output from testing recipes for salad greens was met with the same enthusiasm in my house as were recent chocolate and rib-eye steak offerings. Still, after our six weeks of outright overindulging, Endless Summer Harvest managed to put a bright spin on turning over new leaves for the new year.

RECIPES:

One-Bowl Italian Salad

Thai Chicken and Shrimp Salad

Red Sorrel andWatercress Soup

Hagedorn’s Sourced column runs monthly in Food.

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