Story and Photos by Jim Ritch —
Every week, even in the cold of December, a harvest of lettuce departs the hydroponic greenhouse of Shore Breeze Farms in Cheriton, destined for local schools, restaurants, farm markets, and grocery stores.
This December, the new and innovative operation is celebrating two milestones: a Business of the Year Award from the Northampton Chamber of Commerce and completion of its first year in business.
“We’re just very thankful,” said Kyle Sturgis, manager.
The promising future of the greenhouse, which grows lettuce more sustainably with higher yields, also recently attracted the attention of Virginia officials, who awarded a $15,000 grant to increase production by about 30%.
The funds will be used to hire help tending the greenhouse. Those duties are mainly shared by Sturgis and an intern, Broadwater Academy student Sawyer Johnson.
“Someone has to be here 24/7,” he said.
When problems arise that the elaborate digital control systems can’t handle, there’s only a two-hour window for repairs. After that, lettuce and profits wilt.
The operation was long in coming. Its origins include a plant physiology course at Ferrum College, Ferrum, Va., for which Sturgis installed a hydroponic rack. He also wrote his senior thesis on hydroponic farming before graduating in 2011.
Sturgis’ father, Steve, sees hydroponics as a high-tech means of diversifying the family’s 1,200-acre farm and providing continued employment for Kyle and his brother, Jarrett, who runs the snap pea, grain, and bean operation that occupies most of the farm’s 1,200 acres.
The brothers are the fifth generation of Sturgises to farm the Eastville area and southern Eastern Shore since 1907.
“We’re just trying to make room for everyone,” said Steve.
The family decided to grow lettuce because of strong local demand by schools and restaurants.
The family also operates its own market seasonally and supplies 14 varieties of sausage made by another family member.
Each week, Kyle Sturgis works one day in Virginia Beach at a farmers market and delivers to Quail Cove farm market and Bay Creek’s Coach House Restaurant.
Although scrambling to make the operation work, the family had time this fall to supply Kiptopeke and Occohannock elementary schools with a pumpkin patch. When students couldn’t come to the family’s annual hayride and pumpkin patch at the farm, the family carried pumpkins to the schools. They created a patch of donated pumpkins in the halls.
Students selected their own pumpkins to decorate and take home.
In the greenhouse, lettuce plants begin their growth under pink grow lamps shining down on sheets of volcanic rock wool.
The wool supports seedlings’ roots, much as soil would, although nutrients come from water flowing over the roots.
After four days, the seedlings poke above the wool and are moved to the main greenhouse, still in sheets.
Kyle then breaks the sheets into individual squares, each containing one plant. Squares fit securely into openings of the main growing racks, which position each plant at an optimized distance from others, forming a precise geometric design.
Growth of the plants requires careful monitoring, done largely by a digital console. Several times each hour, the console opens louvers and activates fans, tweaking the temperature and humidity of the greenhouse air.
“It’s a balancing act that you have to have down to a science,” because of the precise relative humidity that has to be maintained for the plants to absorb nutrients, said Kyle.
Although water flows through a maze of pipes, tanks, and racks in and under the greenhouse, very little water is lost.
After water recycles through an underground tank, sensors measure its electrical conductivity, which is largely determined by salts in the fertilizer. More fertilizer is automatically added as needed.
In the future, Kyle hopes to add additional greenhouses and produce tomatoes.
Almost any plant can be grown hydroponically, but not all can be done economically because of the high cost of digital controls and other equipment.
“You’ve to be careful. This is expensive real estate,” said Steve Sturgis.