Mary Ellen Taylor sells her produce at weekend farmers markets near Washington, D.C. The heads of lettuce, still attached to their roots, are popular and she has many repeat customers.
“The lettuce just tastes fabulous," says Betsy Kulick, one of her regulars. "We can come here year round even in January, February and March. The lettuce is very green and tastes just as good then as it does in summer.”
Taylor grows the lettuce and other salad greens on her family farm in Loudoun County, Virginia, about 80 kilometers from Washington. She grows the food plants in a greenhouse, without any soil, on a diet of nutrient-rich water.
It's called hydroponic farming. Although the technique has been around for thousands of years, it has filled a very small niche in modern agriculture, especially in the United States, where large tracts of land and other resources are available.
Taylor harvests 4,000 heads of lettuce weekly in her two hydroponic greenhouses all year round. That's why she named her farm Endless Summer Harvest. She has a dozen part-time employees and frequent visitors from around the world.
“Several weeks ago an investor group from Botswana came to visit with us," Taylor says. "We had farmers from Afghanistan here that were visiting, because this would be an ideal controlled environment to bring to Afghanistan where the climate is so harsh."
Taylor's hydroponic crops are protected from the harsh elements from planting to harvest.
It starts with seeds being planted in the nursery. After they germinate, the little plants stay in the nursery for two weeks. Then they're moved to a greenhouse and placed into gutters, where they'll grow to market size.
They're nourished sustainably, using recycled water.
“The tank has 600 gallons [2000 liters] of water with nutrients," Taylor says. "It continuously flows in and out of that tank after it has gone through the system and all of the plants’ roots.”
According to Taylor, the two greenhouses take up a little over 1,000 square meters of land but produce the equivalent of a conventional five-hectare farm.
“We have established that it is so productive on small pieces of land," Taylor says, "that it can be closer to major metropolitan areas.”
Besides farmers markets, Taylor sells her fresh produce to specialty grocery stores.
“It is incredibly popular," says Don Rodon, owner of The Organic Butcher of McLean. "We have a great following.”
At 1789, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., chef Anthony Lombardo uses the hydroponic lettuces in his signature salads.
“They [the clients] really like the salad a lot," he says. "We get a lot of positive feedback about the salad.”
And that's translating into brisk business for hydroponic farmer Taylor.
“People are so into buying local food. Ninety percent of Americans eat lettuce every day. Our business, while other businesses are tanking, is just exploding," she says. "We are a retail farm phenomenon here in America.”
Taylor, who enjoys being known as "the lettuce lady," plans to double the size of her farm this year.