Farmers find year-round crops with hydroponic greenhouses

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(The Center Square) – It may be frigid outside, but some farmers are continuing their craft despite the freezing cold.

Andrew and Heather Spray are grain farmers in West Salem, Illinois, who have expanded their farm operation to grow lettuce and greens year-round. The Sprays grow lettuce and greens in their 128-by-30 ft greenhouse.

Spray doesn’t eat salads. He said he doesn’t even like to put lettuce on his sandwiches.

“For me, to grow it is kind of ironic,” he said.

As a business, growing greens has worked out well for the family. The greenhouse has made it possible for Andrew to quit his sales job in town to farm full-time.

The Sprays came up with their produce growing plan in 2015 when Heather read an article about a hydroponic tomato operation in Missouri. She asked Andrew if he wanted to build a greenhouse.

“I’ll be honest, I laughed at her because I thought she was kidding,” Andrew said.

But the more they looked into it, the more they liked what they learned.

“It was a way for me to supplement the two-row crop farm,” Andrew said.

By early 2016, Joy Lane Produce was up and running. Lining up customers was tough, Spray said, but he knew it would be. Now that Joy Lane Produce is established, the customers call them, Spray said.

The majority of Joy Lane sales are to independent restaurants and caterers who appreciate the look, the taste and the freshness of the produce, Spray said.

“I remember one particular customer who ignored me until I showed up one day and put the product in front of him. He just fell in love with the quality,” Spray said.

Joy Lane romaine lettuce costs a little more than romaine from California. However, because it is so fresh, it lasts much longer, a big selling point for restaurants.

“When I first started, I had a customer telling me that they went through four boxes of romaine a week. I thought, ‘This is great. I’ll have a big sale,’” Spray said.

It turned out that the restaurant had to buy four boxes of lettuce a week because half of it spoiled before they could use it. Spray’s locally grown lettuce stays fresh longer so they only need to buy half as much.

All year round, Joy Lane Produce grows a variety of lettuces, along with kale and collards. They harvest every week. When it is not hot, they grow spinach and arugula. They grow heat-loving basil in the spring, summer and fall.

During the winter when the days are short, their yields are smaller but they always have a product. Neighbors get their greens at the self-serve retail shed, which is open 24 hours a day, except on Christmas and Easter.

For tours and more information, visit JoyLaneProduce.com.

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