Just Add Water

written & photographed by JENNIFER COLOSIMO

WHEN I SAT DOWN FOR LUNCH AT THE PEACH AND THE PORKCHOP, I didn’t peruse the menu as I normally would. In fact, I wasn’t even letting my stomach do the searching. Instead, I focused only on which dish might best show off this famous lettuce that owner Chuck Staley had been talking so much about. I wanted to see it in all its supposed color and flavor glory … in a salad bowl and how it stacked up on a sandwich. Mostly, I wanted to know why high quality lettuce is such a big deal, because in all honesty (and total ignorance), do we really care about lettuce?

I know that statement garners countless winces from both Staley and the owners of Circle A Farms, but whole-heartedly, now, I can reassure them that I do — I absolutely care about lettuce!

Circle of Friends

That first lunch at Staley’s restaurant didn’t seal the deal. It helped secure it, sure, but the fruits of labor down a short gravel road off Dishroom Road in Cumming are what confirmed my new love for greens. Several crispers later, I haven’t turned back. The story of that lettuce really starts with Jeff Adams. He’s one of two very friendly faces you’ll see when you open the airtight front door at Circle A Farms. Adams grew up around farming and he’ll tell you that as a result, his favorite smell is still that of a freshly plowed field. Since then, he’s leased land, raised cows and farmed in some capacity.

“I had a passion to do something like this full time,” Adams said. “I read an article about [hydroponic farming], started researching it and after about two years decided, let’s try it. This is a way we could [farm] without owning hundreds of acres. We thought it was a cool idea, kind of like the farming of the future.”

He purchased the land in Cumming 15 years ago and construction on what would become Circle A Farms began in the fall of 2011. It included two bays of hydroponic trays (row after row of inconspicuous little seedlings) and the farm’s first harvest was ready by March of the following year. “It’s better this way. You don’t have to be way up in North Georgia to run a farm, because you need tons of land,” he added.

The other friendly face at Circle A is Cheryl Howlin. With a degree in dietetics and nutrition, she was looking for her next move when, through mutual friends, she heard about what Adams was doing. Already passionate about eating healthy, she was fascinated by the possibilities of this new kind of crop. Her enthusiasm became obsession, and while she laughs about just how far she’s taken it, she’ll unabashedly keep talking about it.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked. “The footprint that it leaves is very tiny compared to regular farming. You need acres and acres for that. And, there’s so much variability with animals and the weather. Here, we’re removing the elements and the animal factor, and we’re getting a much better product and a greater yield with a much smaller footprint.”

“I had no idea really about how much better it was,” Adams said. “I knew it was a great product and superior to the dirt raised product, but …”

“I think he just thought it was pretty, and that there wouldn’t be as much waste,” Howlin interrupted. “But truly, once you have this lettuce … I tell people there is one downside to our lettuce. Yes, there is one bad thing. Once you try it, you won’t be able to eat the lettuce from the grocery store again.”

“That’s right,” Adams said. “Once you have it, you don’t go back. It’s just better.”
“About two years in, we kept hearing the same thing over and over,” Howlin said. “People kept saying, ‘This is the best lettuce ever!’ They would use those exact words every time. I don’t think that we’re doing anything that special. I just think that this is what lettuce is supposed to taste like. We’re just doing it right.”

“It’s not that we have a miracle lettuce here,” Adams added. “It’s just the fact that it’s not two to three weeks old once you get it. That’s why when you open a bag of grocery store lettuce, it goes bad in a few days. They’ve washed it to death, too, washed away all the nutrients. When it doesn’t have proper nutrients, the shelf life isn’t very good.”

It’s enough to hear the passion in Adam and Howlin’s pitch, but I got the rare opportunity to go through the farm’s other airtight door and see the farm in action. With no sound but the steady hum of giant fans, it’s peaceful, quite literally organic and instantly inspiring. Now with four bays, the expanse of the warehouse is unified in rows of various maturities of lettuce — some two-foot stalks of Romaine, tiny sprouts of colorful spring mix and overflowing, flawless heads of Bibb lettuce, at first glance. It’s dotted with bright umbrellas shading solitary farmers carefully tweezing seedlings or cutting off fully-grown heads. At one end is a plethora of machinery and computer systems, tubes and storage racks that look, to the layman, like something from a science lab. These are the farm’s intricate systems of mineral-rich water that is carefully measured and monitored and dispersed across the bays and underneath the trays. Everyone dons t-shirts reading, “what’s on your salad?” No one looks harried or overworked. It’s instant job envy — and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t really like to get her hands dirty.

Since its inception, the farm has stayed small, but that intimate group of dedicated workers includes a few horticulture experts and several individuals who took up an interest when they started working here. Some place seedlings, some snip with garden shears and others sort, stack and pack the crispers that go straight into the cooler or delivery truck.

On my way out, I was overjoyed to take home a box of arugula, Romaine and spring mix, with a promise to myself to come back for the others.

High Quality H2O

Hydroponic farming means to grow plants without using soil. Instead, plants are seeded in another medium, like the floral foam-like substance called Oasis at Circle A. The roots receive a steady stream of nutrient rich water from under the trays where they grow. In short, it’s a cleaner, healthier environment to grow plants — which means you don’t lose prep time washing your greens and you get more vitamins and minerals on your plate (or in your smoothie glass).

Another perk is the shorter life cycle that hydroponic seedlings have — about a third faster than a traditional farm. At Circle A, a seed is wetted and left to germinate over two to three days. Then, the tray is moved to the nursery to spend 10 days in nutrient-filled water where the seedlings grow to about an inch high. They are then transplanted into growth trays where they receive a constant flow of nutrients and sun for about a month before they’re harvested. Finally, they are sent to one of the farm’s restaurant clients or packaged into individual crispers for their (informed) Farm-to-Porch delivery subscribers. Some of their chefs will call and ask for more lettuce the night before they need it. Circle A delivers.

Currently, they’re growing seven varieties of lettuce — Romaine, spring mix, Tropicana, Bibb, kale, basil and arugula; but they’re also selling micro greens, Mizuna, broccoli and arugula, packed with nutrients and perfect for garnish, extra flavor or as a power boost in your smoothie. Many other things can be grown hydroponically, including tomatoes, peppers, flowers, cucumbers and herbs, but don’t expect to see an expanded menu from Circle A just yet.

“We chose to grow lettuce over other produce because we wanted to grow something that would appeal to the widest range of people possible,” said Howlin. “Almost everyone eats lettuce to some degree, either as a salad or on a sandwich. This way our customers could be most everyone.”

If you’re not eating Circle A lettuce at a restaurant, which on the Northside includes Colletta and Oak Steakhouse in Alpharetta, Stone’s Cocktails and Cuisine in Johns Creek, The Peach and The Porkchop, Blue Bicycle in Dawsonville, 61 Main in Jasper, HOME at Big Canoe, NIDO Café, Rick Tanner’s and Rendezvous Cafe in Cumming, Kaya Winery and Dahlonega Spa Resort, then the Farm-to-Porch program offers an easy option to quit your grocery store lettuce and answer the doorbell to fresh leafy greens. Within about a 20-mile radius, you order and pay online and Circle A drops your crispers at your door every week. Fair warning though, with such real, personable reasons to eat this local lettuce, it’s going to be very hard to leave salad on your plate.

Science of Taste

I asked Howlin and Adams why it is so important for consumers to understand how this lettuce is different and what we are missing with the aforementioned grocery store lettuce. The answer would be on my plate, yes, but it goes even further than that, covering a slew of quality factors and even our future.

“It is important to look at the environment that lettuce is grown in,” Howlin said. “If it’s organic, great, because having no herbicides and pesticides is a great start, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. What about the quality of the soil the produce is being grown in? That is dependent on the quantity of the nutrients in the soil. Nutrient-deficient soil gives nutrient-deficient produce that goes bad in just a few days.

“Our lettuce is grown in a nutrient-dense environment without harmful herbicides and pesticides,” she reiterated. “Many people love the fact that they don’t have to wash or rinse our lettuce. There’s very little waste, because it has a longer shelf life. Most of our lettuce lasts a minimum of 10 days and up to three weeks for some varieties.”

According to Colletta’s executive chef, Jason Stern, “The food you make is only going to be as good as what you make it from. We start with the best products available to put the best possible food on the table. A lot of people are just tasting the dressing when they eat salad. That’s not the goal of the lettuce — it’s meant to have a taste, its own flavor profile. At Colletta, we try to educate them on what to look for. Having good product helps us do that.”

How the product tastes and its quality are based on a few elements — the cleanliness of the greens (nothing touches it, not even rain water), the fact that they’re harvested daily for optimal freshness and that they’re grown with all 14 nutrients lettuce likes, in the proper pH. Circle A feeds the lettuce what it wants, nutrients like Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus, plus 11 other very small quantity nutrients, including Calcium, Magnesium, Copper and Zinc.

For anyone missing a chemistry degree, that means it tastes good and lasts a long time, naturally.

“Not only does the lettuce thrive with this diet, but our diet gets a boost as well, because the greens alkalize the body while providing a great source of fiber. An alkaline body has been scientifically proven to prevent many common cancers and fiber helps with many of our digestive cancers,” Howlin said.

From personal experience, these varieties also have rich texture and taste — a conspicuous crunch from a stable, vibrant silhouette provides a strong platform for the unique flavors of each type to stand out. The arugula is supremely peppery. The Romaine, light and earthy. The Bibb, I could use the same words I’d use to describe a flawless Chardonnay, it’s so buttery and smooth.

Our best compliment comes from children. Many families report that this is the only lettuce their kids will eat.”

“Our best compliment comes from children,” Howlin added. “Many families report that this is the only lettuce their kids will eat. We believe kids taste harmful pesticides/herbicides better than we can (we’ve grown accustomed to them over time). They taste ‘off’ to young palates, so this is a great way for kids to eat healthy foods.”

“I want to give my customers the best products that I can find,” Staley, from The Peach and The Porkchop, said. “Using high quality lettuce just goes along with what we do. The taste is truly amazing. It simply doesn’t compare to store-bought lettuce in its color, texture and flavor. The lettuce we use is cut fresh the day it is delivered, there is minimal waste and it has a longer shelf life, so the cost is well worth the quality of the product. [It’s] 100 percent organic and grown 20 minutes from the restaurant. That is so very important to our philosophy.”

Still naming pros, most of the lettuce you buy at the grocery store has been washed (an FDA requirement) so much, that the nutrients it had are heavily diminished. Without those natural preservatives, and the fact that it’s often already a week or more old by the time it’s on the shelf, you have to use it almost immediately to avoid throwing any away. Most often, you do anyway. A large part of this is because we get a lot of our lettuce from out west, Mexico or other countries. At some point, our lettuce supply will be greatly affected by the water crisis happening there.

“It’s not a matter of if we’ll be affected, it’s when we will be affected,” Howlin stressed. “We have found the solution to the water crisis, since our greens use a third less water than what traditional crops use. Hydroponics is not only a great way to grow tasty greens but also solves how to leave a smaller footprint on the environment in a healthy, nutritious way.

“I would have thought I would be involved in who knows what with nutrition,” Howlin added. “And now I’m involved with lettuce? I wouldn’t have guessed it. But everyone hates their lettuce. My gosh, I love solving problems. This is the solution. It’s healthy, it makes people happy and I love it.”