It’s not quite spring, and lettuce is sprouting in Casper.
But the romaine isn’t clawing its way to the sun from underground. The butterhead isn’t vulnerable to bugs or other threats. To find the Swiss chard, you have to look up, not down.
That’s because this lettuce is growing in a retired refrigerated shipping container that sits on Matt Powell’s west Casper lawn.
Every stage of these plants’ lives, from seeding to harvesting, will take place here in this metal shoebox that’s just 8 feet wide, 9 feet tall and 40 feet long. In eight weeks or less, the lettuce will go from tiny seed to full, leafy salad ingredient hours from being delivered to local kitchens.
But dirt will not be involved. Sunlight will sit on the sidelines. To thrive, this lettuce needs only water, nutrients and the glow of the high-efficiency LED lights that hang like beaded curtains from the ceiling.
“This is an entirely closed environment,” Powell said, surveying the interior of the farm, which he calls Skyline Gardens. That means outside elements won’t affect his crop. Flooding and drought aren’t concerns. He uses no pesticides or harsh treatments because there are no pests and no contaminants. The only precaution he has to take comes when he harvests the lettuce: He uses gloves so the produce doesn’t even have to be washed when it reaches the customer.
“We don’t have any bugs,” he said. “We don’t have any weeds.”
As long as Powell is careful to regulate the temperature, humidity, C02 level, lighting and nutritive mix in the water using the computer screen mounted at the door, he can control the growing conditions on his small farm. He looks for a temperature of 65 degrees and about 65 percent humidity.
He doesn’t hit those marks every day, but he aims to come close. He’s still learning and adjusting, having only received the retrofitted shipping container in December after learning of the concept in a news article over the summer.
To Powell, it’s been worth the effort to learn. Hydroponic farming uses 90 percent less water than its conventional counterpart, he says, as it recirculates the liquid through the system, and it cuts down on risk, shielding the plants from outside threats. He uses more electricity than he’d like, but so far, he’s happy with the results.
This week’s harvest will be Powell’s third. So far, he has about a dozen home delivery customers and two restaurant customers – Downturn Wings and Greens as well as the Lilacs & Lavender Tea Room, which is expected to open soon. At his first foray into the Casper winter farmer’s market, he found homes for 70 to 80 heads of lettuce.
But he’s pleased with the pace of business and has no plans to expand. His schedule as a pastor allows some flexibility, he says, but he’s a beginner in the agriculture industry and already spends around 20 hours a week tending to the hydroponic farm. In all, the metal box offers the equivalent of 2 acres of prime farmland, Powell said. At full capacity, the farm will produce between 500 and 600 heads of lettuce a week.
In front of Powell, at knee level, trays of seedlings sit stacked on shelves. Some are flourishing, with yellowish-green leaves beginning to show themselves. Others look empty. All started as tiny seeds nestled in peat moss – or as Powell calls them, grow plugs. So far, he is growing romaine and butterhead lettuce and Swiss chard, as well as an experimental handful of culinary herbs such as dill, oregano, cilantro, chives and basil.
Lettuce seeds are the size of a grain of dust – so small that it’s difficult to handle them while planting. To make the process easier, the lettuce seeds Powell uses come coated in white clay. They look like tiny yogurt-covered raisins in a jar.
Once those seeds have been placed in the trays and have begun to sprout, Powell and his team – so far, just his wife and four children – transfer them to the vertical columns that take up most of the tiny farm’s real estate.
Water and a carefully adjusted mix of nutrients, currently stored in bottles mounted to the wall for easy adjustment, will circulate via a pump, nourishing all the lettuce plants, from the top to the bottom of each tower. Strips of red and blue LEDs – the colors of light plants absorb – cast a glow on the leaves from 4 p.m. to 10 a.m. It’s nighttime in the retired shipping container from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and that’s when Powell and his family do their work.
If all goes well, in four to five weeks, the plants will begin to look vibrantly green, ruffly and crisp, similar to the lettuce for sale at grocery stores.
Finding a market
But Powell warns against comparing this hydroponically grown lettuce to what’s often featured in produce sections. It’s not as cheap as iceberg lettuce, which is popular chiefly because it ships well, he says. But at $2.50 a head, it’s often less expensive than the hydroponic versions on offer at the supermarket.
Most important, he says, it’s fresh. Powell says that lettuce loses nutrients and taste every minute after it is harvested, and local delivery shortens the journey between farm and table.
“The closer you get it to where it’s been harvested, the better it’s going to be for you,” he said.
He appreciates the environmental benefits of this method of farming but is most excited about what it will mean for customers. His crops are fresh and local, he says, and he’s connected to every part of the business, so he knows all the details of the process and can fill them in when they ask.
“I want to deliver a product that the customer feels good about eating, and it tastes great,” he said.