Chepachet, RI – “I’m a little island,” Mark Phillips told me as he welcomed me into his secluded hydroponic greenhouse. “No one does this any more — it’s not worth it.” In fact, Mark is in the process of figuring out his own path to survival, like all farmers, but with the particular challenges of hydroponic growing.
He’s something of an accidental farmer; when he graduated college it was with an environmental studies degree, and he hoped to work in a natural park. But those jobs were drying up, and he took a job at the greenhouses while waiting for a job in his chosen field. The summer turned into years, and in 1990 Mark took over ownership of the farm from its former owner, who had been running it as a post-retirement business, as much for the fun and challenge as anything else. Mark had the training from working with this passionate pioneer, and continued to hone his understanding of how to make soilless growing more productive and efficient.
The original green house was joined by two more, Mark’s quest for efficiency and ideal greenhouse design showing itself more mature with each version. A perfectionist, he couldn’t stand it to see a batch of lettuces beginning to bolt, meaning they had to be discarded. More than the waste, it was a sign that his carefully honed system had tripped up – a complex calculus of knowing his markets, seasonal demand variations, growth rate of lettuces in different seasons, the number of rainy days that slow maturity, and myriad other details that lead to growth predictability. He grew year-round, selling primarily wholesale to grocery chains. With the trickle-down effects of NAFTA, however, the pressure on hydroponic lettuce growers intensified as large Canadian growers came to dominate the greenhouse crop market. The prices were pushed down, and the only way to make up for it was to grow more lettuce, pushing himself and his greenhouses to maximum capacity.
Then it dawned on him a couple years ago, “the more successful I was, the more unhappy I was,” and something had to give. “With three greenhouses, I was a machine!” He seriously downsized, to his most recently built greenhouse, and decided to take mid-winter off because heating expenses made it a loosing proposition. He stopped trying to compete for the major grocery chains with their little pricing games, and is re-trenching himself back where he wants to be – growing the best hydroponic lettuce on the market, and finding customers who appreciate it for what it is. Never again the ceaseless treadmill – and seeing how the greenhouses work, it’s an apt comparison, far from the romanticized image of a farmer tending long rows of green with a hoe.
Entirely indoors, the most mature plants are the closest to the door and get progressively younger as you walk to the back. Mark led me to the far end, where the youngest seedlings were taking root in cubes of growing medium – a spun mineral fiber material called rockwool which acts as a moisture wick to keep seeds and roots moist at all times. He manually places pelleted seeds in the indentations in the top of each one, filling trays at a time. When they have germinated and taken hold, each tiny cube and its seedling is moved into a hole in the long growing trays lined up on rollers along each side of the greenhouse. As they grow, the rollers allow him to space out the trays better to allow plants to grow out, not just up. The water-based nutrient system cycles through the bottom of the trays, providing a steady supply of nutrients to growing plants. In this way, he can bring a batch of lettuces to market in 30 days during the summer growing season, although the shorter days of winter mean the crops take twice as long to grow in January. He can fit a staggering 13,000 plants in one greenhouse at a time – but that includes some at all stages of growth.
These days, Absalona has a few core sales outlets. It was Eastside Marketplace that encouraged him to give basil a try, and now it is a major crop as well, its broad verdant leaves hand-packed into neat plastic boxes. Mark jokes that he and the produce manager at one of the Providence stores kind of grew up into their trades together. Whole Foods has also been a loyal customer for many years. Mark’s wary of sounding boastful, but he knows they buy his lettuce – which costs more than Canadian imports – because it is higher quality. Not all stores are so easily convinced, but experienced managers know that the loss rate for his lettuces is next to nothing, because they are essentially still alive when they arrive at the store. Their protective boxes mean no bruised leaves, either. He’s worked with restaurants off and on, but he says the trick, as with produce managers, if finding the actual chef or owner who cares about quality and realizes that there will be no “shrinkage” in their purchases. It’s an audience he knows is out there, but it takes a lot of time work wooing and winning over one kitchen at a time. Acknowledging good-humoredly his tendency to go it alone, Mark says it was totally out of character for him to have attended Farm Fresh RI’s Local Food Forum, hosted by Brown University, to learn about and network with institutional kitchens, but it was a fruitful experience.
Starting in 2005, Mark decided to take his products straight to the consumer, and started doing farmers markets, where he has been winning over customers with the same advantages – gorgeous, lush, toothsome lettuce that stays fresh for at least two weeks. The markets aren’t necessarily a boon to the farm’s overall income, but for Mark it’s as much a matter of getting out and meeting some cool people. Days alone in the greenhouse can wear thin, and he thought, why not give it a try? So he showed up at his first market with a truck full of lettuce and a card table. He learned very fast he had to get more sophisticated – first of all, selling delicate lettuces outdoors without a sunshade isn’t such a great plan! The first week, he covered his whole table with a flattened cardboard box, hardly a prime display technique. The second week, under his new tarp, he contemplated his booth and came to the sad realization that it was just too… green. Boxes of lettuce, punctuated by basil, made a monotonous vista that wasn’t as appealing as it might be to customers. He has gradually added new varieties of lettuce and basil to his crops, growing just enough for his market needs. Curly-leafed purple basil and delicate lemon basil are joined by lacy oak leaf and pompoms of lollo rosso lettuce amid the sea of fleshy Boston bibb lettuce and Italian basil. The icing on the booth, to mix metaphors, is his whimsical decision to give sunflowers a try. Bright and eye-catching, they add a bright touch to the table – and to the greenhouse too.
The leaner, less mean Absalona Greenhouse once again seems like a good place to be. Mark is very protective of his privacy, especially because interruptions are very disruptive when he’s in the middle of working the finely honed hydroponic system. But the work routine needn’t be the frantic full-speed charge it used to be. The day of my visit, Mark and his kids were finishing up their pizza lunch as I arrived, and they stayed playing around while we spoke. Like many farm kids, they get roped into helping put stickers of packages when its crunch time, but they get to spend the day together, working and playing side by side, and that’s not such a bad thing. And with more, diversified crops and greater control over where his products are going, the farm seems to be looking healthier for everyone.