Endless Sun Produce: Hyper-Local Lettuce Grown by IFFS Incubator Farmers Chase Werner and Matt Spitzer

Chase Werner and Matt Spitzer have been friends since middle school. Now, they’re business partners in Endless Sun Produce, growing salad greens and culinary herbs hydroponically through Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Incubator Farm Program, located at the IFFS Teaching Farm on Tryon Road in Raleigh. Why lettuce?

Did you know that 90% of the lettuce consumed on the east coast is grown on the west coast in just two locations? Turn over a package of salad greens and you’ll see that it was grown in either Yuma, AZ in the summer or Salinas, CA in the winter.  Yet it’s such a huge market staple – every restaurant has a salad on their menu. Chase and Matt are currently in the process of transitioning to growing all Rex Buttercrunch lettuce – a type of lettuce bred for hydroponic growing. When they harvest the head of lettuce, they stick it in a clamshell container, root ball and all, so it’s actually still living at the time of purchase.  They aim to sell the lettuce hyper-locally – ideally all within Raleigh. They can sure beat west-coast lettuce on freshness and carbon footprint.

Why hydroponics?

It makes sense for growing lettuce year-round. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants that uses no soil, just nutrient-enriched water.

There are sustainability benefits to using this method as well. It’s easier to grow organically in a greenhouse, as the contained space allows for the introduction of beneficial insects to control pests instead of chemicals.  Hydroponics uses 70% less water and 60% less fertilizer than it would to grow lettuce in traditional soil-based systems, and it’s 3-5 more space efficient. With hydroponics, the contained system means less evaporation and no fertilizer run-off. It takes a gallon of water to grow a head of lettuce – but the water in this system re-circulates from a 45 gallon reservoir that they only have to top off every few days, powered by a low-wattage pump that operates 24/7.

Hydroponics systems are adaptable and can be operated in a variety of small urban spaces. He sees them as a key part of the future of farming, as arable land decreases and farming in cities increases. Because the systems are often built at waist height, they’re more accessible for folks in wheelchairs and mean less bending over to harvest for able-bodied folks as well.

It’s also a great way to create a dependable revenue stream for urban farmers – all it takes is math to figure out how much you can produce on a weekly basis, and it’s a low input but high output system. According to Chase, one farmer can make a living off of a ¼ acre. Chase and Matt currently produce 60 heads of lettuce per week, growing on a 6 ft X 12 ft hydroponic system. From seed to harvest, they can finish a head of lettuce in just five weeks.

Plans for the future

Chase and Matt are not newcomers to entrepreneurship or to hydroponics. Now holding a business degree with a minor in horticulture science from NC State, Chase actually built his first hydroponic system when he was in high school out of his parents’ garage and sold lettuce door-to-door. Knowing that he wanted to make a living farming, Chase had heard about the IFFS Teaching Farm from various friends, and stopped by one day to talk to Farm Manager and Educator Sun Butler. Chase shared pictures of the system he had built, and soon after, he and Matt were officially part of the Incubator Program and setting up shop in the greenhouse.

They sold their lettuce at the IFFS farm stand this summer, plan to participate in IFFS’s winter CSA, and operate a home-delivery service in University Park. Eventually, they plan to sell at other farmers markets, to restaurants, and in local grocery stores as well.

Chase currently works full-time as store manager at Fifth Season, a hydroponics, homebrew, and organic gardening store. Matt works there part-time, and spends the rest of his time on the Endless Sun Produce endeavors. The team’s goal is to eventually make farming their full-time job. They’ve got a business plan worked out and are in the process of looking for land to farm on more permanently.

The IFFS Incubator Farm Program supports and grows new viable, independent farm businesses and helps build a healthy, hunger-free local food system  by serving as a model new-farmer program. The knowledge of how to grow food is an important step toward developing a locally-owned food system that builds self-sufficiency and community power. The more we understand about growing and preparing food, the more access we have and the healthier we are. 

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:

  •  http://www.howardresh.com/Hydroponic-Culture-of-tomatoes.html
  •  http://www.hydroponics101.com/sw63706.php
  •  http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.topic_vph
  •  http://oardc.osu.edu/hydroponics/t01_pageview2/Home.htm
  •  http://cals.arizona.edu/grafting

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:  http://augustcraftup2013.eventbrite.com/

Weekend Workshops: Grow Your Own

Join us for two upcoming agricultural workshops this weekend!

  • On Saturday, July 20th from 9:30-11:30 at our Hoke Street Training Center, learn to grow microgreens with IFFS Urban Ag Educator Maurice Small and the IFFS Urban Ag team! You've heard of baby spinach - microgreens are even younger, harvested at less than two weeks old. At this young stage, the greens pack up to 4-6 times more nutrients than mature greens. During this fun and educational morning, you'll learn how grow, prepare, and enjoy these nutritious greens!
  • On Sunday, July 21st,  join us for C.R.A.F.T. United Piedmont's second farm tour and potluck of the 2013 season,  3-7pm at LL Urban Farms in Raleigh.  The special topic will be Indoor and Outdoor Hydroponics.

Click here to learn more and sign up. For an idea of what to expect, check out this blog post from the June tour, held at Dancing Pines Farm in Efland. Every tour is as unique as the farm that hosts it, but you can expect an informal, behind-the-scenes, collaborative learning experience that is driven by the questions and interests of participants, rather than by a pre-determined curriculum. All experience levels welcome. Come ready to learn and share!

The Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) is an international model of regionally-organized farmer training rooted in the belief that farmers learn best from each other. Through CRAFT United Piedmont, local farmers 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.

CRAFT membership and all events are free through 2013. Please RSVP to each event.