FresH2O Growers is using a hydroponic production system to supply East Coast consumers with organic leafy greens.
Anyone involved with the commercial horticulture industry is likely familiar with the van Wingerden family and the impact it has had on the production and marketing of ornamental plants. However, one member of the van Wingerden family is making a name for himself and his company by producing organic hydroponic produce. Joe van Wingerden operates FresH2O Growers, a 12-acre greenhouse facility in Stevensburg, Va. Joe shares the greenhouse space with his son Ben who operates a potted orchid growing company called Color Orchids.
Focused on leafy greens
Joe van Wingerden built his first greenhouse and began growing bedding plants and hanging baskets during the 1970s. His main focus switched to greenhouse construction in 1995.
“Joe is the greenhouse general contractor for Prins USA and the dealer for Prins greenhouses in the United States,” said Mary-Scott DeMarchis, director of sales at FresH2O Growers. “When Joe started his facility it was an office, warehouse and shop. He originally rented the space to a tulip grower which added on to the facility as it needed additional space. When that agreement ended, Ben decided to grow orchids and Joe decided to grow lettuce.”
Joe’s interest in producing lettuce began in the 1970s when he constructed a greenhouse for another grower.
“The lettuce greenhouse Joe built was a turnkey project so he did a lot of research about how to produce the crop and the environmental controls,” DeMarchis said. “He’s been interested in producing lettuce ever since. Joe developed a nutrient film technique moveable gutter system and he holds multiple patents on the design.”
van Wingerden worked with Prins greenhouse engineers in the Netherlands to develop the production system and Prins markets the system worldwide. Because it is a movable system FresH2O Growers can produce more crops in the same square footage than traditional fixed systems.
“Although the NFT system was designed and is marketed for the hydroponic production of leafy greens, it can be adapted for other crops including kale, arugula and salad mix,” DeMarchis said. “We have also grown other types of greens and herbs. Right now we are growing only lettuce.”
Expanding market for leafy greens
DeMarchis said van Wingerden saw lettuce as one of the indoor crops that offered an opportunity on the East Coast.
“Joe saw controlled environment agriculture as a sustainable and safe way of producing greens,” she said. “Even though we are trialing other types of greens, right now there is an opportunity to continue growing hydroponic lettuce for East Coast markets. We are continuing to grow a lettuce monocrop for scalability.
“Being located in Virginia is also a key factor in producing leafy greens. We sell to large grocery stores and wholesalers. We sell to most of the retail grocery stores and some of the largest chains. We are centrally located to I-95 and we can be in any location within a day, whether it is Boston or Miami.”
Although FresH2O Growers is focused on growing different varieties of head lettuce, the company is expanding its product offerings.
“We recently launched a long-lasting salad blend consisting of salad mix with the roots attached,” DeMarchis said. “For this new salad blend we designed a proprietary package that houses the roots separately from the leaves. This enables consumers to open the package and remove the leaves without touching the roots like they were harvesting lettuce straight from the greenhouse. With the roots still attached, the lettuce lasts longer and stays fresher until consumers pick the lettuce as needed.
“We have done R&D with different varieties like baby romaine and baby arugula. We hope to expand our offerings this year with a line of salad blends in the new packaging.”
FresH2O Growers is currently using five of the 10 acres available to grow lettuce, but that production is expanding very quickly.
“We have already begun to expand the production into another acre of greenhouse space,” DeMarchis said. “We plan to double in size over the next year. We’re adding on to the hydroponic production system with plans to max out the greenhouses. We will be doubling our capacity from five to 10 acres. But the 10 acres isn’t a limit for us. We are going to max out our production at our current location before we look to expand. If we can keep on growing at this location, we will continue to do so. We have 300 acres of land around us so we can easily expand.
“We not only want to offer consumers a locally-grown product, but we also want to be able to do it so that more consumers can afford it. With our scalability we are trying to make it possible for more consumers to afford and enjoy organic, sustainably-grown products. Our motto is “Fresher, greener, healthier.” We want to grow a crop that is sustainable, that is good for our planet, but is also healthier and better for consumers.”
This article is property of Urban Ag News and was written by David Kuack, a freelance technical writer from Fort Worth, TX.