CRAFT Group Learns Hydroponics at LL Urban Farms

Two local couples, Jim and Debbie Loy and Glen and Barb Lang, had never grown anything prior to Oct 29, 2012. But after a two-day hydroponics workshop and just a few months of work, they’re now producing 1000 heads of Bibb lettuce per week in a 1500 square foot greenhouse they built last summer.  The families’ joint venture, LL Urban Farms, hosted about 20 farmers, gardeners, educators, restaurant managers, gardening store workers, and other farm-curious folks on Sunday, July 21st, to learn about hydroponics, as part of Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s idea exchange program, the CRAFT United Piedmont (CRAFT = Collaborative Alliance for Farmer Training). IMG_4371In addition to Bibb lettuce, LL Urban Farms also grows grafted heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants through an outdoor hydroponic system, and sells  locally grown vegetables (both organic and conventional), fruits, cheese, seafood, and other farmers market staples at their farm stand on Holly Springs Road. LL Urban Farms grows their produce without any pesticides or herbicides. Oh, and they expect the farm could profit $100,000 off of an acre a year, combining retail and wholesale profits!

LL Urban Farms is in a prime location – technically outside of Raleigh city limits, but still in an urban environment and located on busy Holly Springs Road, right across the street from Fairview Nursery – bringing in plenty of traffic and customers to their farm stand, which is open Wed-Fri 11-6 and 11-5 on the weekends. The county vs. city zoning also allows them more flexibility with their farm stand and signage.

 What is hydroponics?

IMG_4359Hydroponics is a technique of growing plants without soil, using a liquid nutrient solution that reaches the plant roots generally by either flowing through an inert substrate in which the plant is placed (often some sort of sand or gravel mix) or by being pumped through tubes that hold plant roots. LL Urban Farms starts the seedlings in a system of pipes that circulate water, with a rock wool cube immersed in the water. LL Urban Farms grows tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers outdoors in “bato buckets” (which have a special notch at the bottom to fit over a drain pipe), filled with a mixture of  perlite, vermiculite, and gravel, designed to hook up to a pipe that cycles the water from the pump and then back to the well – a 300 a gallon tank at LL Urban Farms.

The perlite keeps the material aerated, and the vermiculite lets the water filter through the buckets so the plants can absorb the water and nutrients. The gravel in these buckets help prevent algae growth. The water contains a 1% solution of salt fertilizer, and the buckets are “flushed” each night with a rinse of pure water to prevent build-up in the buckets. Some other hydroponic growers in the area use fish emulsion instead, which is organic but requires more guesswork to suit each plant’s needs.

The tomatoes they grow are heirloom varieties – including German Johnson, Cherokee Purple, and Brandywines – known for their flavors – but these are grafted onto more disease-resistance and higher yielding Multifort root stock.

Butterhead Living Lettuce grows inside their 1500 sq. ft. greenhouse, where a computer system measures the pH and fertilizer level in the water as well as the electroconductivity.

In his prior career, Glen Lang served at the Mayor of Cary, but also spent many years in the technology field. He loves the math involved in farming systems, and loves the efficiency and precision of the $3000 computer system they use.The farmers could adjust the pH and electro-conductivity by hand, but it would require 6-8 checks/day, so the farm invested in the computer system. A swimming pool pump re-circulates the water running through the pipes using a nutrient film technique, providing a continuous flow of nutrients for the plants.

Why grow hydroponically?

  • Although it may sound water-intensive at first mention, growing lettuce with hydroponics actually uses just 10% of the water it would to grow that lettuce in the field, where much of it drains into the ground or evaporates. In the hydroponic system, most of the water re-circulates.
  • Growing without soil also helps avoid many diseases that are soil-based.
  • Glen says produce like lettuce is easy to grow with hydroponics – and produces a much higher yield than when it is grown as a field crop.
  • Growing in greenhouses provides a controlled environment, eliminating many weather concerns, and making it easier to grow without pesticides or herbicides.
  • As an added bonus, because the plants are grown on raised tables in rows of pipes, there’s no bending down to reach them, and because they’re not grown in soil, there’s no weeding!

Who does LL Urban Farms sell to?

They sell to individuals in the community at their farm stand, area restaurants including Maru,  Battistella, and Fiction Kitchen, as well as Harris teeter, Whole Foods Cary, and the mobile farmers market LoMo Market. They sell to and for Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) – creating a market for their organic produce at the farm stand along with fish from Locals Seafood, and beef, chicken, and pork from Queen B Farms in Mebane and Rainbow Meadow Farms in Green County, NC. It’s all about getting more produce dollars directly into local farmers’ hands. They also grow lettuce year-round by using a chiller on the water during the hot summer months. This allows them to meet market demand and sell to places like Whole Foods with a need for steadier supply of specific produce. The farm also has 3 bee hives both for the honey and the pollination benefits.


  • Crop King, where Glenn Lang and Jim Loy took a two-day hydroponics workshop:

134 West Drive, Lodi, Ohio 44254 USA

Phone: (330) 302-4203

  • AM Hydro, where they purchased the greenhouse equipment:

General Information on hydroponics and grafting tomatoes:


Next Up:

Join us for the CRAFT-United Piedmont Event on August 25th from 3-7pm at Piedmont Biofarm in Pittsboro. The special topic will be On-Farm Seed-Saving and Growing Cooler-Weather Plants During Summer led by farmer Doug Jones. Find more event info and register here:

IFFS's CRAFT: Bringing Farmers Together to Learn and Grow

Beginning and seasoned farmers, backyard gardeners, and simply the "farm-curious" came from all parts of the Piedmont to learn about the latest techniques and innovations in sustainable farming, as Inter-Faith Food Shuttle kicked-off the first growing season of the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) United Piedmont. The collaborative is an international model of regionally-organized farmer training rooted in the belief that farmers learn best from each other. Through CRAFT United Piedmont, inspiring leaders in our local farming community will host educational tours on their farms once a month from June to November. Each tour will focus on a special topic and will be followed by a community potluck. The Kick-off Farm Tour and Potluck  was hosted on Sunday,  June 2nd, by Joanna and Bill Lelekacs at Dancing Pines Farm in Efland and focused on Growing Summer Produce in Hoop Houses. Attending this inaugural event were over 30 beginning farmers as well as established farmers, farm interns, folks interesting in starting their own farms, backyard gardeners, farm-curious folks, and some just interested in learning more about local farms. They came to Efland from around the region – including Sanford, Louisburg, Durham, Raleigh, Pittsboro, Silk Hope, and Hillsborough.

Bill Lelekacs led a tour of the farm’s two hoop houses. These inexpensive, unheated (passive-solar) greenhouses are often used to extend the growing season, meaning that farmers can start producing earlier as well as keep on growing longer than they could without the hoop house’s protection. The Lelekacs grow produce year round inside these structures– including lettuce in December, so they can sell at farmers markets and to restaurants year-round. Hoop houses are also useful during the summer because they allow farmers to protect crops from rain and use only drip irrigation instead. Keeping the leaves dry on growing plants can help to control many pests and diseases associated with our warm, wet summers.

 Bill showed the group how the sides can be rolled up or down to allow ventilation or to keep the heat inside.


Dancing Pines tomatoes CRAFT

Joanna Lelekacs led a tour around the rest of their almost two-acre, chemical-free farm, explaining their focus on pollinators and giving participants a look at their fencing systems, pond for watering, small orchards, organic pest-prevention techniques, and the development of their post-harvest shed. Along the way, attendees asked questions and shared ideas about future projects, past experiences, trouble-shooting, and their favorite tools.


The event wrapped up with continued conversation over a wonderful potluck meal – full of what else but lots of farm-fresh veggies!

The event wrapped up with continued conversation over a wonderful potluck meal – full of what else but lots of farm-fresh veggies!

CRAFT United Piedmont is supported by Inter-Faith Food Shuttle through a USDA NIFA Beginning Farmer’s and Rancher’s Development Program grant. It's all part of strengthening the local food system to make sure everyone has access to good food and the income to be able to purchase it. Stay tuned for more CRAFT events each month this summer and fall at local farms!