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Extending the growing season: farming in water instead of dirt

Chris Lester says the family farm is testing hydroponics to grow leafy vegetables in the off-season

Chris Lester, partner in Lester's Farm, hydroponic

Chris Lester, a partner in Lester's Farm, is trying out varieties of lettuce at their new hydroponic facility in St. John's. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

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A family that's been farming for 165 years in the St. John's area has embraced a high-tech growing method, experimenting with something completely alien to them: growing plants in water without using soil.

Lester's Farm on Brookfield Road has embarked on a trial run in hydroponics hoping to grow a steady supply of leafy vegetables during the off season from December to June.

'Anyone can grow a head of lettuce in the field' - Chris Lester, Lester's Farm

"Anyone can grow a head of lettuce in the field, I think.  We've been doing it for years," says Chris Lester, one of the owners of the family farm.

The plan

One of their green houses has been outfitted with lights, water, environmental systems and rows and rows of long plastic growing tubes.

"We have four different types of lettuce (red leaf, green leaf, Boston and romaine) a couple of types of kale, green onions, basil, cilantro and Swiss chard," said Lester.

Hydroponics at Lester's farm

Chris Lester plans to harvest lettuce, kale, green onions, basil, cilantro and Swiss chard by early December. (CBC/Eddy Kennedy)

He plans to have the first harvest ready by early December.  After that, if all goes according to plan, they'll harvest 400 to 600 units (heads) every week up until June.

"We've gotten pretty good at storing our traditional Newfoundland vegetables for 12 months a year but this is something that we're really missing.  During the winter we'll be able to displace the imported lettuce from California or Mexico," said Lester.

'Less forgiving' method

There's a steep learning curve ahead of them and Lester said lessons learned so far have been tough. 

"Hydroponic growing is less forgiving than growing in the fields," said Lester. 

"If there's a mistake to make, we'll make it at least twice."

 Lester said when growing with hydroponics,"you can ruin a crop in hours, but outside, it takes a whole season to ruin a crop."

Hydroponics water

The water that trickles past the roots has nutrients added to it. (CBC/Eddy Kennedy)

The well water that trickles over the roots down the eavestrough-like tubes has nutrients added, and the PH level has to be just right.

"If your PH is off a little bit, or often times you're looking at some kind of nutrient deficiency or toxicity, and you got to worry about humidity, carbon dioxide levels, air movement. Things that you normally don't think about outside," said Lester.

He added that even controlling air movement is important because it prevents leaf diseases.

Lester can see progress with their first batch of bright green, leafy vegetables and he's pleased they've taken the plunge.

"There's definitely a bit of nervous excitement. We've been looking at this for seven or eight years," said Lester.

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