Hi there Friends and Fans of ESH! Welcome to The Lettuce Volumes. This discussion will serve as a behind the scenes look at season changes here at ESH and how it affects the volume of our production. The changes of the seasons affect every living being, including all the crops and products we grow in our greenhouses. For example, we mere mortals switch from flip flops and shorts to heavy coats and layers due to season changes. My cat sheds (SHEDS!!!) mid-Spring, adjusting to the effects of warmer weather. And the tulips in the garden or bluebonnets in the field require season changes to grow and flower properly.
Farmers depend on historical data from reliable sources such as the Farmer's Almanac, their own records, and local Agricultural Extension Agents to name a few, to guide them with seasonal information and crop production. Gardeners and farmers know that when you plant your seeds or seedlings in your garden, your seed packet (or almanac or go-to blog/internet site) will advise you to plant during a certain time of year, specific to that plant and specific to your region. This is based on first and last predicted frost, whether the plant is a cool weather crop or hot weather crop, growing time to harvest, and other well-researched considerations. These recommendations are there to help the grower produce the best crop, with hopefully high volume output.
We remember that certain crops and plants thrive in higher temperatures and direct sunlight (corn), while others do best in cooler temps (radishes or carrots). Most farmers (if not all traditional soil farming) do not produce crops year-round out in their fields, due to crop tolerance, related to changes in seasons. As you all know, ESH is an exception to this rule, and here we are, challenging and defying the odds.
In our hydroponic greenhouses, and the way we operate 365 days per year, we balance the seasons of the year, and continue growing our crops. We have done this for 20 years now, successfully managing crop production in almost every scenario. Mary Ellen proudly shares, "ESH has continuously grown lettuce in computer-controlled, plastic greenhouses, during SNOWMAGEDDON, The Derecho, an earthquake, droughts, late frosts, wet Springs, power outages, and most recently, over 29 days of over 90 degrees. And through all the climate oddities, we have not had a crop delay or failure." ESH has managed to survive these harsh temperatures, thanks to our amazing team, greenhouses, and things like shade cloths and venting (please see our Virtual Farm Tour video to see more on this).
Typically, lettuce is a crop that does best between March and June, before temps become too high. Due to the fact that lettuce prefers cooler temps (Spring time), and the crops react to the factors discussed in this post, our volume changes — increases and decreases — as the seasons change. Lettuce head sizes vary, herb sizes vary, and pests vary, and it all affects our production volume. But you said that you have a climate controlled environment in your greenhouses, why would you have differences in volume? Great Question!!
As this "Third Rock" we call home rotates and revolves around the sun, things like the last and first frost are considered, as they are temperature related, and sunny/cloudy days, and hours and minutes of daylight are also considered. Still other factors are important when considering lettuce size and volume, and we walk a line to balance out these factors. This mainly involves our greenhouses, and our computer environment agriculture (CEA) production system. We happen to be pretty high tech, fancy schmancy right here in Loudoun County.
The ESH greenhouses are the single biggest thing involved (because of both the size and insulation factor). The greenhouses absolutely protect our crops from the extremes of the outside. They do not stop, but they definitely mitigate the effects of the temperature outside. This means that we are still at Mother Nature's mercy, to a point. In the Summer, yes, it's quite hot inside the greenhouses, and a shade cloth can reduce the temperature dramatically. In Winter, you can be comfortable in a sweatshirt. To make up for shorter daylight hours in the Winter (it's dark by 5pm!), we employ specialized lights. Sometimes you can see the greenhouses glowing, as you drive down Route 7!
Now, let's look at the seasons. In one of our first blog posts, you may remember that I mentioned the phrase "Spring has sprung", and the lettuce is at its biggest size. This is because lettuce thrives in Spring. Cooler temperatures (ideal temps) and lengthening daylight hours foster the best lettuce growth, and our heads grow literally larger than the size of your head (the proof is in the picture, no Photoshop here!). Larger head size equals more volume, as you put the lettuce all together in a pile. Fun fact: one bin of Springtime lettuce can often end up producing about three pounds of ready-to-eat salad blend, after it's all processed. We can crunch out pounds and pounds and pounds of lettuce in no time!
As Spring turns to Summer, we maintain that growth, and often fight lettuce growing too large. (What a glorious problem to have!) Summer temperatures are pretty hot here in Virginia, so our job becomes reducing the amount of stress the plants are under, to make sure growth is directed towards leaf production and not bolting.
Summer turning into Fall is also a great time at ESH, as our head size is still pretty awesome, lending to great product volume. As temperatures grow cold when Old Man Winter arrives, the greenhouses also get cooler, and the daylight hours shorten. Even though lettuce likes cooler temperatures, lettuce does not like cold (think freezing) temperatures, as it will throw a tantrum and slow (or even halt) its growth.
Here again, those amazing greenhouses keep our crop protected from freezing, and we take measures to reduce plant stress, and keep our lettuce growing. Lettuce head size will inevitably reduce, but we still have growth and production. Admittedly, this equals a lower volume, as you put the lettuce all together in a pile. Another fun fact: one bin of Wintertime lettuce might equal about one pound, after it's all processed, as compared to the volume from Spring. The highlighted, important point here is that we maintain a crop harvest every single week, regardless of lettuce size. And as The Head of Lettuce emphasized, without a crop delay or failure. Every single week, 8000 plants go in, and 8000 plants must come out. We're pretty proud that we can keep it going all year long!
Winter seems like it wants to hang on for dear life around here (I'm a native Texan, so these Winters here are long in my mind). I remember a couple of Winters that seemed to go on forever, but at ESH, we kept right on pushing the Summertime vibe. And then, when Winter finally lets go, and Spring springs, we start marveling once again at the "size of that head!" (Refer again to the above picture.) It really never ceases to amaze us, even after all of these seasons and years. And once again, we are having more photo-ops with lettuce, of all things. (Oh clearly, we'll stop and take a picture all year long!)
Our arugula crop and other herbs are also subject to the same size/volume variations. Some might be surprised to learn that we are still able to grow basil plants in the winter, or have such tasty arugula in the winter, but our customers enjoy fresh basil and arugula all year, along with all of our other herbs. We think that's pretty groovy!
Right now, it's August. It's hot. Volume is great. Soon, Winter is coming, and our volume will eventually decrease. Long time Friends and Fans of ESH can testify that we will not have crop failure, but we do have less lettuce volume. We will maintain our wholesale customers and farmers market attendance throughout the Winter months, but please keep in mind that it will be at a smaller level. And before you know it, we'll be charging back into Spring, anticipating that day when we have too much lettuce (is there even such a thing!?).
At the farmers markets in the Winter, just like during high volume Spring and Summer, customers are served in a first come, first served fashion. At the time of this writing (and things could change), we anticipate continuing our pre-ordering, which will impact product availability at the markets. We will do our best to keep y'all well informed about what to expect, via this website (News and Updates tab and on the blog) and on Facebook, when the time comes.
Friends and Fans, thanks for delving into The Lettuce Volumes with us! It's always fun to learn something, so thanks for tuning in and learning about lettuce growth and things that fascinate the farm fam. We'll chat again soon. If you have any blog topic requests, send them our way! Until then, stay healthy and hydrated!