In the world of vegetables, lettuce may not occupy the top spot on the list of what’s trending, but try to imagine a world (or a burger) without the trusty sidekick.
Circle A Farms in Cumming is taking a new approach to the leafy green, and collecting fans and kudos for its natural approach to growing lettuce with enhanced nutrition, as well as taste.
Owner Jeff Adams opened the greenhouses at Circle A Farms in 2011, using hydroponics to grow his crops in water — without soil. The process was developed in California decades ago, after growers struggled through persistent drought conditions and sought a more efficient way to use the land and natural resources.
At Circle A Farms, Adams uses the most minimal amount of land for his 45,000 “holes” — occupying a four-bay greenhouse of just under 15,000 square feet. What started as an operation growing just four kinds of lettuce has grown to 10 varieties of greens and herbs, including bibb, kale, romaine, arugula, spring mix and basil.
Adams grew up working on the family farm in Alabama alongside his dad, but initially opted for a career in the construction industry. Two decades later, the land called him back.
“I always wanted to farm full-time, but wanted to do it on a smaller footprint of land,” he said. “After a fair amount of research, I found hydroponics and realized it was a very efficient, clean and healthy way to grow greens.”
So why lettuce?
“I wanted to grow something that almost everyone would buy,” explained Adams. “Since lettuce is something almost everyone eats to some degree, in salads, sandwiches … I thought for marketing purposes, this would sell the best.”
And he was correct. In 2011, he broke ground on the property in Cumming, and constructed the greenhouses along with his dad. Soon, the seeds arrived to be transplanted in their water-based, state-of-the-art system.
One month later, the first harvest was ready to go and quickly made its way to restaurants and tables across the area.
Adams admits there was a learning curve in the beginning, as he and his staff learned the intricacies of hydroponic farming.
“We didn't have a template of how to make this business work,” he said. “It has all been trial and error and a positive attitude. Hydroponics is a simple process, but it isn't always easy.”
The opening of Circle A Farms also paired nicely with the “clean eating” movement, and the farm-to-table trend that still thrives today.
Marketing director and co-owner Cheryl Howlin says much of the food Americans eat is coming from sources far away, and the quality is often in question. Often by the time it makes the trek around the globe, it arrives on the dinner plate virtually tasteless, she said.
“Our lettuce is harvested and delivered daily and is grown with all the proper nutrients that lettuce needs to be both healthy and delicious,” said Howlin.
Every 60 days, the water used in the production process is evaluated by Clemson Agricultural Department and analyzed for 14 nutrients.
“All of our nutrients are derived from natural sources and made water-soluble,” said Howlin. “Nutrients serve two important purposes: it helps our lettuce taste amazing, as well as being a natural preservative.”
Howlin met Adams just two months into his first harvest and knew immediately she wanted to be involved in the business. She had a degree in dietetics and nutrition, and was excited by this new concept in farming.
“I wanted to help get the word out,” said Howlin. “While Jeff focused on the facilities and growing of the greens, I focused on the business development. We now partner is all aspects of the business and make a great team.”
The lettuce from Circle A Farms was initially sold to restaurants, at farmers markets and directly to customers from the greenhouse. In 2017, Howlin developed Circle A’s farm-to-porch delivery program, which allows customers to order and pay online and then delivers the products directly to their doorstep.
“Our delivery zones currently serve all of Forsyth County, as well as parts of North Fulton,” she said.
Looking ahead, Howlin wants to bring their products to an even wider customer base, and spread the word of the options in healthy eating.
“We are creating a ‘Salad Bar Party’ concept where you can sample our greens, enjoy a healthy salad, learn about the nutritional benefits of our greens, as well how to incorporate our greens into your daily meals,” said Howlin, who envisions holding the “parties” at offices, schools and private events.
She loves telling the story of hydroponics and how it not only enhances the nutritional aspect of lettuce, but also helps the environment through water conservation and reduced pesticides. Howlin said Circle A Farms uses ladybugs, instead of pesticides, to cut down on “lettuce loving bugs.”
“We simply love what we do, and that’s important,” she said. “People want to know who is growing their food, where it is grown and have a relationship with the grower … the way it used to be when we gathered food from the farms in our own community.”