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Agricultural Spotlight – Hydro Greens

This Tioga County-grown lettuce is fresh all year

 

by Melissa Bravo - January 20, 2016

In our first feature farmer spotlight of the year, we are visiting with greenhouse growers Marlin and Diane Plank at their business called Tioga County Greens. They are located just off Route 414 on Plank Road in Liberty, PA.

Graphic-HydroGreens

The temperature outside this week has been a frigid 12 degrees if not lower and with the wind blowing all the time it feels even colder. So, if you are looking for a chance to get out of the cold and see a bit of spring, how about a bright and warm greenhouse full of lettuce to brighten your day?

Marlin Plank, who I met in 1993 when I began working as a crop advisor here in Tioga County, retired from the dairy side of his farm operation in 2000. After working off the farm for 14 years, he decided it was time to venture into something new at the farm. As his wife Diane had just retired from the Southern Tioga School District where she had worked as a secretary for 20 years, the idea of putting in a small greenhouse came to mind.

They started out with 200 strawberries in a five-tier outdoor hydroponic pipe system in 2010. Later, after the smaller greenhouse was built, they grew about 300 heads of lettuce. Then they added hydroponic buckets and grew green beans, tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers. The idea of growing produce ‘year round’ for local use really appealed to Marlin and Diane. After due consideration, they choose to install a large greenhouse in October of 2014 which was completed in March of 2015. By the end of the year, they had grown and harvested over 4,000 plants. That house can hold as many as 6,000 plants of lettuce at any given time. The 128×30 greenhouse is where we filmed this feature story.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a soil-less environment. For highly valued and perishable produce like lettuce, kale, and other leafy greens that are susceptible to soil-borne diseases, it is a great alternative to the traditional method of planting in the ground.

Hydroponically produced plants like lettuce can be grown year round as long as the temperature, humidity, and light requirements are met to maximize vegetative and/or fruit production. Marlin heats his three houses with propane and relies on natural lighting. Garden plants that require a longer photoperiod can also be grown for about 8 months of the year in this type of system here in the northern tier. By planting the crops in a greenhouse where environmental factors are rigorously controlled, producers can take advantage of a system that utilizes significantly less water than what would be needed in a soil grown environment. While producing, on average, higher yielding and higher quality produce as a result of the nutrient –rich water that feeds the plants roots.

Another great benefit and a win-win in the marketing campaign is that no herbicides are necessary to control competing vegetation. Lettuce plants, for example, are started from seed in sterile medium and after a few weeks are transplanted into a water bath that supplies a continuous feed of nutrients.

On average, it takes five weeks in the summer and eight weeks in the winter for the lettuce to reach harvest maturity here in the northern tier. The lettuce in this feature was planted from seed into what is called rock wool media. Rock wool is manufactured by melting basaltic rock and spinning it into fiberglass-like fibers. Later, the seedlings are transplanted into floating benches until they reach harvest size. Since the first run matured, the Planks have harvested about 40 cases a week. A case of lettuce typically holds 20 leafy plants.

When the lettuce is ready, the Planks and a league of pickers harvest the leafy greens for various retail and restaurant businesses here in Tioga and Lycoming counties. They also sell to the general public on Saturdays, so call ahead to find out when a run will be harvested and what varieties are available.

At the moment, the Planks have three types of lettuce on hand: Romaine, Leafy Green, and Red Leaf lettuce. They also will grow kale, arugula, and even tomatoes and cucumbers at other times of the year and are planning to expand to include peppers.

You can connect with the Planks by calling them at (570) 404-2061 or on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TiogaCountyGreens/.

Credits:

Writing: N/A

 

Produced by Vogt Media

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