Twenty years ago, growers offered few lettuce varieties to the consumer beyond iceberg lettuce. With an increased interest by today’s consumer for nutritional value, dark green leaf lettuces are now as equally popular as is iceberg. Almost any upscale restaurant offers salads using a variety of leaf lettuce.
Since leaf produce is among the most popular and most frequently purchased produce items, Jan and Stephen recognized an opportunity to fill a significant need for quality, locally grown produce not being met.
Hydroponics—the science of growing plants in soilless, inert media to which is added a water-soluble nutrient containing all essential elements needed by the plant for optimum growth and development—offers financial and production advantages.
“Want to help solve hunger world issues anywhere?” Stephen adds. “Hydroponics is a reality for all climate regions. Large hydroponic greenhouse complexes exist throughout the world, including Holland, England, Germany, the Middle East, Spain, and Africa. Our principal supplier, CropKing out of nearby Lodi, recently built inside a very large cave near Vladivostok, Russia, a complete hydroponic system.”
What’s next for Oak Tree? “We’ll continue participating in nearby farmers markets from Green to Medina to Kent’s Haymaker,” Jan says. “The addition of a 44-foot by 72-foot greenhouse later this spring will take capacity to just under 20,000 plants.
“We control everything by hand now,” she says. “The new greenhouse will feature computerized environmental control systems, automated injector feed systems, and other technological innovations to allow increased efficiency in production, thereby reducing both capital and operational costs. Waste materials … minimal.” “We recycle our reservoirs of nutrient-enriched water to our gardens, even in winter,” Jan says. “Come summer and our plants will look like they’re all on steroids.”
“The addition will also contribute to expand our commercial market,” Stephen says. “Leading local caterers and restaurants love our produce.” He adds, “We have had a pending contract with the Earth Fare grocery people but could not accommodate the demand for hundreds of lettuce heads per week. The new greenhouse allows our supply to meet increased demand.”
Twenty-first century consumers demand not only high quality but also an assurance that their food is safe. Knowing that a local grower like Oak Tree meets both criteria remains important as opposed to having lettuce imported from another state or country which may or may not have acceptable food safety standards.
“Since the day the truck delivered nearly three tons of materials so we could commence building our business, we have learned to recognize and appreciate each talents,” Stephen says. “Jan specializes on the plant production side; I am responsible for Oak Tree’s business development and marketing. In essence, she works the supply side of the equation. Me, I’m demand.”
With demand soon meeting supply, Oak Tree appears well-poised for success.
THEY COME TO KENT’S FAMOUS HAYMAKER FARMERS MARKET from Barberton. From Hudson. From Akron, Stow, and Ravenna. They come for apples and sweets, for breads and for cheeses, but the Markets’ “long-distance” buyers come for Oak Tree Farms Hydroponic lettuce which Akron based owners Jan and Stephen Brown grow
Even on the coldest winter Saturdays, Oak Tree brings Bibb, Romaine, Green Leafy, and specialty varieties of its superior-grade lettuces to Haymakers’ indoor market, located at the United Methodist Church on upper Main Street in Kent. Jan and Stephen sell their lettuces, except for the mixture bag containing four varieties, with roots still attached to retain freshness and flavor 10—14 days. “We harvest early Saturday mornings to assure freshness,” Jan says.
“Any fresher and you’d have to slap it,” Stephen says, an easy smile across his face.
Oak Tree has been providing locals with lettuce since 2015 following an extended search “to find a niche product we were both comfortable with accepting the business risk,” Jan, a
Public Accountant and lecturer at the University of Akron, says. “I grew up on a self sustaining farm in Wayne County. You never forget how good fresh produce tastes.”
Stephen, a native Californian, flew single engine aircraft before having a driver’s license. A former naval officer (Vietnam) who spent ten years in commercial and international banking, he lectured in graduate-level economics and finance while studying for a PhD before turning to computer-related courses. He has been a lecturer, department chair, CEO for a multi-state post-secondary school, and director of education for a small college. An author with three books—’Sweeps, Track of the Treasure, and Wrath of the Eagle—published to date, he now devotes his time to Oak Tree and restoring his and Jan’s circa 1902 residence.
After Jan and Stephen attended a lecture on aquaponics, the two put their heads together to explore hydroponics. “The word comes from Greek,” Jan says. “Hydro is ‘water,’ ponics is ‘work.’ Our research found evidence the Aztecs of Mexico having devised a system of floating gardens to utilize non-arable swamp land. The famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon proved another example of hydroponic culture.
Egyptian hieroglyphic records dating back several hundred years B.C. describe the growing of plants in water. World War II American forces grew vegetables on remote, rocky islands using hydroponic techniques. The 1942 movie, A Wing and A Prayer, shows off-duty carrier pilots growing tomatoes in buckets using readily obtainable chemicals.”
“There is no ‘out-of-season’ calendar for growing hydroponic plants,” she says. “We provide great-tasting produce while maintaining more efficient energy uses and substantially less water consumption than field-grown crops, where a single watermelon may require up to 18 gallons of water to produce. We use an 1/8 of a gallon of water per plant. Do the math.”
The benefits of hydroponics stand as impressive,” Stephen says. “Besides being water-wise, Oak Tree operates with a near zero environmental impact to deliver superior-quality produce without the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.
Our plants thrive and grow in one body of water using a single infrastructure of consistent biomass. There are no herbicides, no pesticides, no pre-ripe harvests followed by gassing to accommodate consumer-expected colors, and no need to transport product, on average, 1,800 miles.
“Hydroponics also enjoys better product turnover,” he says. “Think 34 days, not 72 to grow lettuce; 45, not 62 for kale; and 45 days, not 80 for tomatoes.”
“Our concept of ‘Field to Table’ is simple—Think four hours.”
Oak Tree Hydroponic Farms
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