Until now, Newfoundland’s short outdoor growing season made it virtually impossible for her St. John’s farm to grow its own produce year-round. But this winter, the family behind Lester’s Farm decided it was time to make fresh salad in February a reality for the family and their customers.
Susan’s brother, Chris Lester, took a trip to Utah in early 2016 to learn about hydroponic growing, and came back with a plan. By December, one of the family’s greenhouses was producing greens and herbs to sell at the market every week.
“I think people are amazed at the fact that you can have a fresh salad in February or January here in Newfoundland,” said Susan.
“We’ve had people come in for a few heads at a time for the whole week, and so far, the feedback has been great. People really like the taste of it, how fresh it is, and best of all, when we sell it we usually keep the bottoms (including roots) on it, so it helps people keep it even longer because they can just pop it into some water.”
In one of Lester’s greenhouses, leafy greens, herbs and green onions grow in neat rows, their roots drinking from a constant flow of water that runs inside long, tilted trays. Rather than using soil, the roots are supported by a growing medium made of spun rock that looks sort of like a sponge. Before running through the trays again, water is cycled through a tank where it takes in more nutrients and is pH balanced.
Above the produce, a burner provides the right amount of carbon and, compensating for the small amount of natural sunlight the plants get in the winter, artificial lights on timers brighten things up.
New crops are started every week, feeding a cycle that allows for fresh produce to be picked and sold every Saturday.
“It was a pretty big up-front cost, but when we were looking at it the return that we would get — especially doing lettuces, seeing that return in six or eight weeks — it was worth it to us. And we figured that if it was something that worked, we could build onto the system,” Susan said.
The family is used to growing outdoors, where most things are out of their control. Indoors, everything from the carbon to the light can be controlled. The light is key; in mid-February, Susan said they were only getting about four per cent of the ideal amount of sunlight.
Things have been running pretty smoothly in the greenhouse, but the Lesters have been learning as they go how different factors can affect the operation.
“We like to call ourselves jacks of all trades, master of none, on everything on our farm. This is kind of a prime example,” Susan said in February. “Now that we’re getting longer days — even though they’re still not extremely long — you can see that the romaine, for instance, is actually the same colour as what you would get in the summer. So it’s after improving, because we’re after making a few tweaks to it.”
A growing operation
She said the family is very happy with the outcome this winter, and hopes to add to it next year. Strawberries and other herbs are among the possible additions they’ve been considering.
“We’re going to keep building onto it, because the customers do like it. We like it for ourselves to eat it, and we could expand this to more,” she said.
The farm makes no claim to be the first or only operation on the island using hydroponics to extend the growing season. In fact, Susan hopes more people get into it.
“I think if more people got on board hydroponics, it would definitely help with the sustainability of food here in Newfoundland, which is something that we all need to be cautious of,” she said.