Most of our products are sold live, with some roots and a sponge block still attached to the base of the plant. These plants are still alive and transpiring, so to ensure maximum life a little water should be added to the bottom of the sleeve (in the case of basil, arugula, and kale) or the bottom of the plastic clamshell container (for whole heads of lettuce) to keep the roots moist. Add enough water to cover some of the roots but don’t flood them. You can even keep these plants on your kitchen counter in a glass with some water in the bottom if you don’t have room in the fridge. Refrigeration will further extend shelf life. If some leaves are a bit limp, dunk them in ice water and pat or spin dry before serving. More time in the fridge after dunking ensures maximum crunch.
Our produce is pesticide-free (we use only beneficial insects and organisms for pest control) and the hydroponic system is free of the soil-borne diseases that often plague field greens, but we personally still wash all of our products and recommend that you do too.
Lettuce, arugula, and kale are all outstanding leafy greens from a nutritional standpoint, with kale standing out as one of the most nutritionally dense foods on the planet according to many sources. Romaine and iceberg lettuces are very nutritious in the outer leaves, but the further inside the head you go, the more water and cellulose you get and fewer vitamins and minerals. Our fancy lettuces have open heads, not closed, and all leaves are packed with chlorophyll and the food-making cells that provide our essential vitamins and minerals. Our lettuce, as is true with most leafy greens, is rich in Vitamins C and A, calcium, and fiber.
Despite recent advances in controlled climate agriculture, indoor (greenhouse) production of vegetables in the US has been staggering for years from the cost of heating greenhouses in the winter and cooling them in the summer. Rising fossil fuel prices have caught up with greenhouse operations that were built to operate by consuming large amounts of cheap fossil fuels for heating and cooling, and they can no longer economically compete with field-grown produce in the western US and Mexico, even though they are transported across the continent in refrigerated trucks. Worldwide, growers and scientists are working to tap green energy sources and use them in new, efficiently designed greenhouses. Ozark All Seasons is one of the first of a new generation of greenhouses that gleans most of its cooling energy from the cool Arkansas soils in the summer and most of its heat from solar collectors in the winter.
Our prototype greenhouse has a geothermal air and water system that provides all of the cooling in the summer. Arkansas soils average about 58 degrees F in the subsoil, and the deeper you go, the more of the year you can tap that cool temperature for cooling either air or water. Our geothermal air pit is 9’ deep and as big as an Olympic swimming pool. Summer air entering the greenhouse must pass through several thousand feet of dry 4” tube that serpentines through the cool, dark soil before entering the greenhouse. It has dumped much of its heat in the soil before entering and being circulated. Likewise, a liquid nutrient that is pumped through the hydroponic channels passes through 1800’ of ¾” tubing that is also buried to a depth of 9’. Even if the greenhouse air temperature is 90 degrees, if the water running over the roots is only 75 degrees, the plants think it is cool inside and are happy.
In the winter, the reverse happens if it is only 30 degrees outside and we need to keep exchanging the air inside, we simply bring the air in through the air tubes, where it comes in at a balmy 58 degrees. The nutrient tank water is heated by a 4’x16’ solar hot water panel when there is the sun and by a backup wood boiler (the greenhouse is surrounded by 200 acres of woods) when it is cloudy.
The initial cost of our prototype geothermal/solar greenhouse was high, as is the entry into hydroponics in general. Building a low carbon footprint all-season greenhouse will always involve putting more of the total cost of the building upfront, but will be quickly repaid on fossil fuel savings. Although greenhouse production is usually more intensive and higher-yielding than field agriculture, soil yields do not begin to approach those possible in hydroponic systems. Soil-based agriculture currently cannot produce enough to repay the initial cost of the building at a reasonable time. The owners of OAS have been producing hydroponically for 15 years, and have put together an all-season vegetable production system that takes advantage of not only nature’s own heating and cooling sources, but blends the advantages of hydroponics with organic fertilizer additives (believed by many to enhance taste and shelf life) and the latest and most nutritious leafy greens. The OAS hydroponic system will produce heads of lettuce with 10% of the water used by field crops, use 15% of the fertilizer (with no runoff), have no soil-borne disease, and can be grown on a piece of land that cannot even grow a weed. Hydroponics is good for the earth and allows fresh produce to be grown close to population centers.
Believe me, we tried, and are continuing to develop our own blend of organic nutrients, but for now, we use a blend of organic and inorganic fertilizers. Organic hydroponics is the ultimate goal of many growers and scientists around the world, including us, and there are a few certified operations in North America, but most are operating under special circumstances – using purchased organic liquid blends is prohibitively expensive, and besides, using trucks to transport liquid kelp across the country runs contrary to our goal of reducing fossil fuels from the equation as much as possible. Eliminating transport and cooling costs by growing in green energy greenhouses year-round close to local markets is the first step. Nutrient-dense, quality produce that is pesticide-free, free of most fossil fuel inputs, and grown sustainably with locally-harvested water is a far cry from imported produce when it comes to sustainability. As we have no herbicide or pesticide inputs, the only component of our system that travels is the fertilizer, and that is the last piece to the puzzle. Once we can recycle the nutrients in our own urban vegetable waste there is no reason for the food or inputs to travel at all, except a local farm to the grocer or market.
Certified Organic is also losing some of its intended meaning as large corporate farms have entered the market and have softened rules. Fees, paperwork, overuse of the word “organic”, and many other factors have discouraged small farmers from pursuing the certified route, and instead, just grow their products in the most sustainable way that is still economical and free of red tape. Ozark All Seasons grows as greenly and sustainably as we believe possible and still make a living. We hope to eventually replace the inorganic components of our nutrient solution with local organic sources, such as compost teas, vermicompost teas, and fish emulsions.
When it comes to producing, especially greens, freshness is the key ingredient to good taste and good nutrition. That lettuce from across the country may still look good in its packaging as the shelf life is around two weeks, but it is already days old before it reaches your refrigerator, and probably limp before you eat it. Ozark All Seasons’ produce is picked (and cooled) about 12 hours before it reaches the grocery store shelf. Most of our products are sold with some roots on, and they continue to live and transpire for days after picking. The nutritional content also decreases with time, so the fresher your greens, the more nutritional value they have.
Even if you don’t mind being dependent on aged organic greens from California grown on government-subsidized water from ever-decreasing snowmelt in the Rockies, even if you don’t care if your lettuce is the freshest or most nutritious, even if you don’t care about the development of sustainable agricultural systems that grow good food, there are still compelling economic reasons to buy your produce locally. Economists tell us that a dollar spent on a local product passes through an average of seven more local businesses before leaving the system. As we grow, we will expand our staff, who will also spend most of their money locally.
Bottom line is, buy local greens and you will get the freshest and most nutritious products available, you will help support green energy, smallholder agricultural system that strives to eliminate fossil fuels, pesticides, fertilizer runoff, water wastage, and you just might help NWA become a little more independent and a little more prosperous.
Our main objectives over the next year include fine-tuning the geothermal and solar components of the current greenhouse (Prototype #1), engineer Prototype #2 greenhouse for construction in 2014, fine-tune our organic/inorganic nutrient solution (by constantly decreasing inorganic components while increasing the organic ones), and finally but maybe most importantly, developing a product line and packaging component that our customers desire.
For 2014, it is unlikely that we will expand the product line beyond lettuce, some salad greens, and microgreens. We do have experience in growing tomatoes, cucumbers, bok choi, and sweet peppers, and would be very open to producing them as we do the lettuce if the local market demands it. At the moment, we could not begin to compete with per pound prices offered at the big box stores, although the quality would be superior. As with greens, local tomatoes could be vine-ripened and grown for maximum taste. Vine-ripened tomatoes don’t travel, though, which is why it is so difficult to find tasty tomatoes that haven’t been grown locally. Some people have a bad impression of hydroponic tomatoes, saying they have no taste. That may be, but it isn’t because they were grown hydroponically—it is because they were bred to yield big, travel well, and they were picked green.