Many of us equate the idea of farming with hard work, toiling in the dirt and culling weeds, all in hopes of a bountiful harvest. But what if you didn’t have to get your hands dirty, deal with invasive plants and insects—or even go outside—and grow even more flavorful produce?
At Salad Days Produce in Flora, Miss., owners Leigh Bailey and Jamie Redmond have been doing exactly that for the better part of a decade. And if you’ve eaten at restaurants like Caet, Walker’s Drive-In and Highball Lanes, or shopped at Whole Foods, Corner Market and Sullivan’s Marketplace in the Jackson area, you’ve most likely enjoyed the fruits of their labor.
Inside the operation
Salad Days operates an 18,000-square-foot greenhouse where they grow six types of lettuce without pesticides or chemicals, and without dirt, all year long. The secret is a hydroponic growing system that keeps all 27,000 plant positions fed with a running stream of pH-balanced, nutrient-enhanced water, as well as highly regulated temperature and humidity.
The environmental advantages to the Salad Days Produce operation are striking. They can produce the equivalent of approximately 5-6 acres of field-grown produce in their 0.4-acre footprint while using up to 80 percent less water than outdoor farming methods. Their annual harvest is about 200,000 heads of lettuce that last longer and taste better than most store-bought produce.
‘Reliability is key’
“Salad Days has a lot of moving parts that involve technology,” Bailey says. “It requires fast and reliable internet to make that all work every day, [with] the perfect amount of nutrition [and] the pH being exactly right.”
C Spire Fiber carries high-speed, broadband internet and connects the systems that help make Salad Days successful. A network of a dozen industrial cooling fans on switches works in conjunction with a “wet wall” pad that runs the length of the building, pulling moist air across the greenhouse to create mini climate zones that help manage environmental stressors.
The system also includes the pH monitoring and control station, which maintains the balance of the water as it picks up macro and micro nutrients, cycles through the feeding tubes and is recycled in a holding tank. Maintaining precise measurements while monitoring external fluctuations in the weather keep the lettuce healthy.
“Reliability is key,” Bailey adds. “If we show up for work one morning and we don't have internet, we're in a world of trouble.”
The taste test
Today, their clients include more than 40 Jackson-area restaurants and grocers, and they’ve made fans of discerning chefs and restaurateurs like Robert St. John and Derek Emerson.
“It makes all the difference in the world to have produce grown a few miles away and not shipped thousands of miles,” St. John says. “A lot of times lettuce is just a vessel to carry dressing. This lettuce is so good you can just eat it on its own. It’s really, really flavorful.”
Bailey contends that the farm of the future will look very similar to the operation underway at Salad Days. In fact, some sources estimate that half of all lettuce sold in the U.S. will be greenhouse grown by 2030. The future is bright, and they’re not taking a second for granted.
"Jamie and I are so grateful that we get to wake up every day and do something we're passionate about. And C Spire helps us do that."