High-tech meets old fashioned farming in Haymarket greenhouses
text and photos by Cassandra Brown
Fresh, plump, emerald green lettuce. Tom Truesdale’s mission is to grow great lettuce at True Farms in Haymarket. But this is not your average lettuce. All of the lettuce at True Farms is grown hydroponically in greenhouses using an intricate water system. Truesdale calls himself the “head of lettuce.” He and his wife Debbie sold their first head of lettuce from True Farms in January 2011.
Mr. Truesdale, a 56-year-old former corporate financier, left the hustle and bustle of Northern Virginia to start a hydroponic farm. Using four basic elements: water, light, seed and environment, hydroponics involves pumping water rich in nutrients through the plant roots.
“Hydroponics is an interesting mix between high tech meets old fashioned farming,” Mr. Truesdale said.
On average, this process takes about one month to grow a head of lettuce. With no background in farming, Truesdale was enthralled by the limitless possibilities of using hydroponics.
“We don’t know if it was a science channel show or if it was a demo, or what got us going, but hydroponics just kept coming back up and we actually started growing in our house…we set up a pilot system and bought about $20 worth of Home Depot materials and started growing lettuce in our house,” he explained. “As a finance guy with no experience, I found hydroponics remarkably easy.”
Eventually he decided to develop a business using the technique, building the greenhouses and water system from scratch in 2010.
“You can read about hydroponics at the kindergarten level and the chemistry level…there’s not a lot of material in the middle. So a lot of it was trial and error,” he said.
The lettuce is planted from seeds bought from Canada and Holland.
Hydroponics allows the lettuce to be grown year-round in a set of six greenhouse bays on the farm in Haymarket.
“In hydroponics, you don’t care so much about the soil. It’s all about what’s in the water, what’s not in the water, how much water there is…It’s about the pH in the water,” Truesdale explained.
True Farms grows four varieties of lettuce: Boston Bibb, Arugula, Red Butterhead, mix lettuce, and seasonal basil (April through October, primarily for restaurants).
“We are trying to provide a grade five lettuce to people who are usually getting a two or three grade,” Mr. Truesdale said.
Their mixed lettuce offers a unique combination of six types of lettuce grown in the same head providing a variety of colors, shapes, and tastes. The lettuce is not sprayed with any insecticides, preservatives, chemicals or additives. The environmentally friendly process of hydroponics uses 300 gallons of water per day, about 1/20th the water used by a traditional soil farm.
The Truesdale’s chose the property in the backyard of the sprawling subdivision, Dominion Valley, for the abundance of clean water. All the water used on the farm comes from well water, which runs off the Bull Run Mountains.
A computer monitors the growth cycle and adjusts the environmental and water temperature of the lettuce. True Farms grows an average of 28,000 heads of lettuce a year on ½ an acre of greenhouses. Compared to other lettuce, True Farm’s niche is providing an extremely fresh product. The lettuce is harvested the day before delivery to each of their customers, making the product last twice as long as regular lettuce imported from the West Coast or Mexico.
The roots are also harvested with the plant, so the lettuce is still living when you buy it in the store. With no employees and only help from interns, the Truesdale family runs the small business.
Mr. Truesdale delivers all the lettuce himself in a refrigerated truck to all 100 of his customers at restaurants and grocery stores in the Northern Virginia area.
After working in finance for Nextel for 30 years, the job offers a change of pace for Truesdale.
“We took the opportunity to try something different. When you are a corporate executive it’s about managing 100 plus people…cerebral thinking. Here at True Farms, it’s much more tactical, more hands on,” he said.
True Farms lettuce is sold at most Giant Foods, Harris Teeter and Whole Foods in the Northern Virginia area. Tuscarora Mills in Leesburg, L’AuBerge Chez Francois in Great Falls, Copperwood Tavern in Arlington and other select restaurants serve True Farms lettuce.
For more information, visit www.truefarms.com