Photography by Dorsey Barger
As the owner of the Eastside Café, I’ve been on intimate terms with an organic garden for many years. So it may seem odd that I’ve only lately begun eating seasonally and locally. But our garden produce is so precious to our restaurant that my business partner, Elaine Martin, and I never take any of it home. We’ve always wanted it all to go to our customers.
When my household’s eating and produce-buying habits finally changed almost three years ago, it wasn’t because my girlfriend, Susan, and I had any grand agenda in mind. We weren’t making a conscious political statement about global warming or vitamin content or factory farming. We just went to the Westlake Farmers’ Market (now the Sunset Valley Farmers’ Market) one infernally sweaty afternoon in late August and fell desperately in love. Food grown on small family farms tastes better than anything from a conventional grocery store, or from a health food store that sells produce shipped in from far away.
Transforming the way we eat does require sacrifices. It’s no longer possible to get any vegetable we crave, any time we want it, and thinking of giving up salads in the summer, when lettuce is out of season in Texas, sounded like an almost unbearable sacrifice.
Then we met Rusty and Susan Staub of Amador Farms. The Staubs grow lettuce hydroponically, all year-round, and Susan and I now eat two heads each week, no matter what the season. I grew curious about the Staubs—how had they arrived at this unusual way of making a living? Here’s what I found out.
In 2001, the semiconductor industry downturn downsized Rusty out of the job that had brought the family to Central Texas from California just a few months earlier. Not wanting to leave the Dripping Springs farmhouse they’d just bought—or its 15 acres of land—they decided to explore what seemed like a crazy idea.
“There just had to be a way to combine this beautiful piece of land with our love of gardening,” Susan remembers. They got their hands on dozens of gardening magazines, read books, searched online, ran credit cards up, and prayed. Talking to other farmers spurred an interest in the possibility of growing vegetables indoors in greenhouses even when they weren’t in season. Finally, they decided to give hydroponics a try.
Rusty built cold frames—big, open structures that could be covered to keep crops from freezing during cold weather, and uncovered when temperatures warmed—then turned a large cold frame into a big greenhouse. They arranged for a farmers’ market stall and began to grow tomatoes and lettuce to be hauled to Austin. They were in business!
Surprisingly, however, although they brought home unsold tomatoes each week, they couldn’t begin to grow enough lettuce to meet the demand.
Flash forward six productive years, during which the Staubs built three greenhouses and one large cold frame (for growing strawberries), and ran a mile or so of water hoses and growing channels. These days, they not only sell lettuce to several hundred farmers’ market shoppers like me each week, they also supply small, community grocery stores such as the Wheatsville Co-op and Farm to Market, as well as such restaurants as Hudson’s on the Bend, Zoot and Vespaio.
I’d been dying to see how hydroponic production worked from the moment I first tasted that perfect lettuce three years ago. And so, on a sunny March afternoon, I arrived at the Staubs’ farmhouse, was greeted by their dog Lilly and a couple of grandkids, and took the informal tour.
Inside the blindingly white greenhouses, we walked past rows of lettuce seated in water-carrying channels atop 75-foot-long platforms. Hydroponic farming is done totally without soil, and has definite advantages over its dirt-farm counterpart, Susan said.
The ease of controlling temperature and moisture, for instance, or growing everything on counter-height tables. “We particularly like the no-stooping part,” Susan said. “We’re not getting any younger, you know.”
But nothing the Staubs grow could happen without a cheap, dependable water supply. The lettuce plants use about a hundred gallons of water per day as they try to keep cool in the hottest months of summer. Much of this hydration comes from an elaborate rainwater collection system.
“If the rainwater isn’t enough to take care of the plants throughout the entire year,” Randy explains, “we use well water that’s been filtered through a reverse osmosis system.”
Mosquitoes aren’t an issue because the water in the channels flows constantly, and mosquitoes won’t lay their eggs in moving water.
“And to keep them from breeding in our ponds,” Rusty says, “we just hooked up a small pump that creates ripples on the water surface. Mosquitoes can’t stand it.”
Each individual lettuce seed is sown into Rockwool—a little piece of heat-treated basalt rock formed into a cube. Sprouting usually takes just a day or two, after which the seedlings are transferred to a square slot in a 12-foot-long growing channel. (Picture a rain gutter enclosed on all four sides, with holes cut into it every few inches.) Rainwater is piped into the channel through a system of flexible tubes controlled by a computer “brain” that has already dosed the water with the powdered minerals and nutrients needed to make it nutritionally complete. This juiced-up water is all the lettuce will eat or drink for between five and nine weeks, after which it’s ready for the farmers’ market. Look Mom, no soil!
Susan and Rusty grow about nine varieties of lettuce, including bibb, green leaf, red leaf, mibuna and mizuna, as well as kale and bok choy. And unlike most store-bought lettuce that’s been yanked from the ground, slammed into boxes, and loaded none-too-gingerly onto trucks to travel for days, only to spend even more days in refrigerators, the Staubs’ lettuce is delicately harvested and arrives at its very local destination with its roots still attached to the Rockwool. These greens, even after we buy them, continue to live.
Until the moment they become a gorgeous salad. And we eat them.