Burgeoning San Diego Startup Slings Locally Grown Hydroponic Butter Lettuce with Roots Intact
December 26, 2011 | Noelle Swan
Pierre Sleiman of Go Green Agriculture has turned a seed of teenage curiosity into a full-grown farm.
The Sleimans have never been farmers. When a friend proposed the idea of a hydroponically grown farm to Pierre’s father about ten years ago, he quickly brushed off the idea. However, fifteen-year-old Pierre saw potential.
“From that point on, I have been interested in turning it into a viable business,” Sleiman said. For several years, he explored hydroponics—a method of farming where plants are grown in nutrient rich water rather than in soil. He said that he found most of the existing hydroponic farms to be large-scale facilities that shipped their products over large distances. He had a different vision: small-scale greenhouses focused on just one product—locally distributed butter lettuce.
“I think the future of farming is decentralizing—going from huge farms to smaller farms. The reason I chose hydro is it allows you to do that on a smaller economy of scale,” he said. “To buy a tractor, you need several thousand acres to make it worth it. For a small hydro greenhouse, once you do the capital investment to put it up, there are not really much more expenses that go along with it.”
Sleiman launched his first green house in San Diego, California in 2009 with a half a million dollar family investment. He spent the first year experimenting with hydroponic system components and configurations and gave away the initial product to local area food banks. Since he began marketing his lettuce in 2010, he said that he has already begun to turn a profit, though everything gained on the bottom line is cycled back into expansion.
The San Diego greenhouse currently produces about 50,000 heads of lettuce per month that Sleiman markets to local restaurants and retailers, including Whole Foods Market. He said that he does not want that facility to supply beyond San Diego.
He has additional plans set up a second greenhouse in Irvine, California, on a retired Air Force Base. The Marine Corps Air Station El Toro was decommissioned in 1999 and has since been converted into a park. The Department of the Navy remediated the contaminated soil to remove chemical compounds that had once been used in plane maintenance, but the old runways remain. Sleiman has negotiated to set up a greenhouse right on the tarmac.
An old runway may seem like an unlikely location for a farm, but Sleiman said that asphalt surface separates the greenhouse from animals and insects. This fits into his management program well. “We don’t use any pesticides. We focus on keeping the environment controlled and in a way where it’s virtually impossible for any pests to get in,” he said.
Environmental control is a key component of Go Green Agriculture and hydroponic farming in general. Even conventionally grown plants do not draw nutrients directly from the soil. Instead, water draws the nutrients and minerals out of the soil and delivers them to the plants via the roots. Sleiman reports several advantages to ditching the dirt.
Without soil, there is no need for compost or manure; staples of conventional farming that can carry insects or even pathogens like E. coli. Instead, plants are fed nutrients dissolved in water. Sleiman can directly control the nutrient levels provided to plant throughout its life. He does not purchase a readymade nutrient mix, instead he mixes his own. “There’s a lot of chemistry involved in understanding how the plants are taking up food,” he said. The precise recipe of naturally occurring minerals and salts that he uses for his lettuce remains a carefully guarded secret.
While hydroponic farming relies heavily on water, it does not heavily consume water. Whatever the plants do not take up gets recycled back into the system. There is no run off and neither nutrients nor water are wasted.
Sleiman found an edge in hydroponic farming that helped to single out his butter lettuce from that of established producers in the area. Unlike in soil grown farming, the butter lettuce roots come out of the growing panel totally clean. Sleiman found that by packaging them with their roots intact in a plastic clamshell, the life of the lettuce nearly triples. He said that move “differentiated our product and added more value to it.”
Go Green Agriculture is not the first to sell greens with roots and all. Canadian hydroponic lettuce grower Mirabel exports their Boston Premium, roots and all, to New England. Tanimura & Antle distributes their Living Lettuce all around the country.
Whole Foods buyer for the Southern Pacific region, Don Nishiguchi said that he believes this is a growing trend. In addition to Go Green Agriculture’s butter lettuce, Nishiguchi said that he sells herbs, cucumbers, and micro greens with their roots intact. “People are really interested in this,” he said.
Go Green Agriculture’s Facebook page is a testament to public interest in their product. While Sleiman says his age at first made it difficult for him to be taken seriously, his youthful comfort with social media and buzz marketing has paid off. His Facebook page has over 20,000 fans, and many participate in discussions about the product. While reconsidering the design of his packaging, Sleiman asked for comments on Facebook and 20 people responded.
“That’s where I see myself as different from the competitors. I really put a huge emphasis on getting to know my customers and building that relationship,” he said.