PEI

This hydroponic P.E.I. greenhouse sells lettuce year-round, roots and all

A greenhouse in eastern P.E.I. is providing fresh lettuces and herbs to restaurants and farm markets year-round, without a speck of soil in sight.

'We use up to 90 per cent less water than traditional farming for lettuce'

'We can actually keep the plants uptaking water and nutrients while they sit in refrigeration at the restaurant,' says Dave Mitchell co-owner at Pure Island Produce. (Pat Martel/CBC)

A greenhouse in eastern P.E.I. is providing fresh lettuce and herbs to restaurants and farm markets year-round, without a speck of soil in sight.

Pure Island Produce in Elliotvale, about 30 kilometres east of Charlottetown, is one of the province's only commercial hydroponic greenhouses selling fresh produce every day — even in the dead of winter.

We can actually keep the plants uptaking water and nutrients while they sit in refrigeration at the restaurant.— Dave Mitchell

"Feels like summer in here 365 days of the year," said co-owner Dave Mitchell, adding that it is especially welcoming on frosty mornings.

"On a cold, windy winter day, walking through those doors, getting the natural sunlight and feeling 18-degree weather in a T-shirt, there's nothing like it."

The greenhouse grows everything from different lettuces to arugula, basil, mustards and chives — even a Chinese kale grown exclusively for one customer. 

'Feels like summer in here 365 days of the year,' says co-owner Dave Mitchell, which is especially welcoming on frosty mornings. (Pat Martel/CBC)

There are a handful of other greenhouses on P.E.I. that sell veggies in winter, but their produce is grown in soil. 

The 6,000 plants sitting in containers there are nourished by fresh well water that constantly circulates through irrigation channels.

'We use up to 90 per cent less water'

The trickling water carries nutrients and minerals directly to the roots. 

'On a cold, windy winter day, walking through those doors, getting the natural sunlight and feeling 18 degree weather, there's nothing like it,' says Mitchell. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Surprisingly, the 3,000-square-foot greenhouse doesn't use a lot of water when compared to farming in soil.

"We use up to 90 per cent less water than traditional farming for lettuce."

That's because the fresh well water is recycled. "The water that we do lose is just through nutrient uptake into the plants."

After two months, the entire system is flushed out and replaced with fresh water.

Deliver the freshest produce

The plants in the greenhouse grow at different stages, taking about six weeks to go from seed to mature plants ready to sell. 

Pure Island Produce delivers its 'living' lettuces and herbs with the roots intact and in water, giving it a longer shelf life than lettuce grown in soil. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Once ready, the company delivers its "living" lettuces and herbs with the roots intact and in water, giving it a longer shelf life than lettuce grown in soil.

"We can actually keep the plants uptaking water and nutrients while they sit in refrigeration at the restaurant," Mitchell said. 

It's the lettuce that keeps on giving after others have wilted — a big plus for executive chef Mitchell Jackson, who cooks for both the Olde Dublin Pub and Claddagh Oyster House in Charlottetown. 

'Still growing as we're storing it'

Jackson purchases between 20 and 40 pounds a week and said it stays fresh longer than lettuce grown in soil. 

'If it hails in the middle of August, we still get lettuce,' says chef Mitchell Jackson. 'Or if it frosts early like it did this year, we still have lettuce available to us.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

"Absolutely. Soiled-based in the summer months, we could get five days before there's no flavour left," Jackson said. "Where these are still growing as we're storing it." 

Another selling point of the hydroponic lettuce is it's consistent availability — no matter the weather.

'There's zero waste'

"If it hails in the middle of August, we still get lettuce," Jackson said. "Or if it frosts early like it did this year, we still have lettuce available to us."

'The totally automated system monitors the air and water temperature, humidity, CO2, light levels and the nutrients in the water itself 24 hours a day,' says Mitchell. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The chef also pointed out that because the lettuce stays fresh so long, there's little waste.

The hydroponic lettuce is slightly more expensive than garden-variety produce, but Jackson said the zero-waste makes up for the difference. 

"It's a good thing because there's zero waste, which means better yields for us and better margins for the restaurant."

Back at the greenhouse Mitchell checks the readouts on the automated system which monitors the air and water temperature, humidity, CO2, light levels and the nutrients in the water itself 24 hours a day.

'Doesn't have to travel large distances'

Since the greenhouse opened three years ago, the owners have been trying to reduce its carbon footprint. 

The 6,000 plants sitting on tables at Pure Island Produce use fresh well water that feeds the lettuce roots directly with added nutrients and minerals. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"We find that our customer base really enjoys having some fresh product that doesn't have to travel large distances to get here," said Mitchell. 

The greenhouse also recently switched from propane to a new wood-fired heating system that's better for the plants because it produces a dry, rather than wet, heat rather that can stunt growth. 

During the darkest days of winter, when there are only about nine hours of daylight, the greenhouse has to rely on electric lights.

"We try to take as much advantage of the natural light as we can," Mitchell said. 

'So much automation'

The company has managed to keep its prices competitive despite the added cost for electricity that outdoor growers don't face.

'We use up to 90 per cent less water than traditional farming for lettuce,' says Mitchell. 'The water that we do lose is just through nutrient uptake into the plants.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

"Our cost per plant production is probably much higher, just because we have to use so much automation and lights to produce our plants," Mitchell said.

But the company saves on the other end, he said.

"We ship all our products locally so our cost of distribution is much lower, so our price per plant should be comparable to plants that come from the United States."

No plans to expand

Mitchell has no plans to expand off-Island — he said there's more than enough business here. 

The plants in the greenhouse are at different stages, taking about six weeks to go from seed to mature plants ready to harvest. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"The amount of fresh produce that's required for the restaurant industry here is pretty staggering," he said. "So I don't think we'd be able to meet the demand of every restaurant in Charlottetown at this particular scale."

Right now, his focus is on satisfying his current customers.

"They know what they're going to get and it's going to be a top-shelf, quality product all year round." 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pat Martel has worked with CBC P.E.I. for three decades, mostly with Island Morning where he was a writer-broadcaster and producer. He joined the web team recently to share his passion for great video. Pat also runs an adult coed soccer league in Stratford. He retired in Oct. 2019.

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