The Fresh Factor: Hydroponic Lettuce Perfection
By Peyton Roberts
What do lettuce and skydiving have in common? Turns out they both share real estate on Guam! Last fall I had the thrill of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane with Skydive Guam (the adrenaline rush really is as incredible as everyone says). When I landed, I was surprised to turn around and see tents full of crisp, clean green stuff greeting us. “Is that lettuce? At the drop zone?” I asked.
Turns out it was. About the same time as I crossed skydiving off my bucket list, I started to notice the Grow Guam Hydroponic Lettuce in the grocery store. There was a great variety of lettuce types, and their produce always made such a beautiful bed for the rest of my fresh Guam veggies to nestle into. Curious to learn more, I tracked down Grow Guam, LLC, and landed right back at the drop zone (via car this time, a decidedly less dramatic entrance).
Grow Guam VP Jon Cramer and Farm Manager Ely Sanchez were kind enough to take me on a walk through the hydroponic lettuce farm. For starters, I asked them to clarify what hydroponic even means. “Basically, water is giving the plants nutrients instead of soil,” Jon said.
On my tour of the facility, I quickly caught on how water runs the show in the hydroponic growing process. Before water is ever introduced to the system, it is purified and filtered. “We have some of the cleanest water on island,” Jon said. Water is cooled to the perfect temperature and nutrients are added as a food source.
The plants are grown in neat parallel rows of waist-high planting tubes that slant down at an angle, allowing gravity to pull the nutrient-rich stream of water from one stem system to the next. An additional benefit of the elevated growing system is that workers (all local employees) don’t have to bend over to tend to the lettuce. The water, which is filtered and purified before it’s introduced into the growing process, is recycled back into a filtration system and rechecked for pH and nutrient levels every five minutes before it is cycled back into the planters.
Clear-walled tents with transparent roofs create a protective dwelling place for the plants, allowing growers to control the climate and UV exposure at different parts of the growing cycle. The enclosures also keep out non-purified rainwater, as well as bugs, weeds, and viruses that can make the lettuce sick. This added layer of protection means there is no need to use pesticides, herbicides, or any other chemicals. The lettuce grown here is completely organic. There were even industrial sized fans circulating fresh air over the lettuce. “These lettuce are spoiled, and not in a rotten way,” Ely informed me. I had to agree. This was like a spa for lettuce.
On our walk through of the facility, I got to see the evolution of each type of lettuce, arugula, and bok choy (pictured on right) from seedling to harvest-ready, a process that takes just over six weeks per head. I was able to peruse and even taste a few leaves of freshness. As a home gardener myself, I was completely impressed at how the hydroponic system is able to control so many of the variables (sunlight, water, bugs) that make farming difficult. The nutrient-rich water that headlines this system enhances the flavors, textures, and colors of each head of lettuce. Looking down at all the neat rows of crisp colors, I was also impressed with how tidy the place was. Turns out farming isn’t dirty once you take soil out of the equation.
In terms of Grow Guam’s individual varieties of lettuce, I think iceburg surprised me the most. “This is the color iceburg lettuce is supposed to be. Not light green or yellow or white,” Jon said. Their version of iceburg (pictured on left), which is relatively new in production, actually looks like a leafy vegetable. Each head of lettuce is packaged with its root system in tact, so it stays fresh in your fridge for up to two weeks (although no perfect head of lettuce is going to make it that long in our house without being devoured). There’s even a variety called Tri-Head, which is Lollo Blonda, Red Oak, and Green Oak all in one. Chop it all together and you have a beautiful salad in seconds.
After staring at all that fresh lettuce, grown to perfection, you better believe I went home and made a salad for lunch! Here are some combinations I like to make:
Mango Garden Salad
Red oak leaf, local cucumber, and local mango (from the farmer’s market dinner party)
Classic Garden Salad
Any Grow Guam Hydroponic Lettuce with local avocados, cherry tomatoes, and cucumber, dressed with Calamansi Poppyseed Vinaigrette
Island Bok Choy Scramble
1-2 tbsp. coconut oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 head Grow Guam bok choy, leaves torn
2 local eggplant, cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 lb. local long beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
salt and pepper
boonie pepper, seeded and minced (optional) or pinch of cayenne pepper
Heat coconut oil in a wok or large pan. Sauté garlic and ginger on medium-high heat for 30 seconds. Add eggplant and long bean pieces for 2-3 minutes until slightly tender. Add more coconut oil to the pan if needed. Turn down heat to medium-low. Add boonie pepper or cayenne pepper if desired. Gently fold in bok choy leaves and sauté for 1-2 minutes until crisp-tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately. Makes a great side dish for fresh fish. Serves 4.
Fresh Factor Insider Scoop: Look for locally grown hydroponic tomatoes coming our way soon! Check out Grow Guam Hydroponic’s Facebook Page for updates.
Peyton Roberts is a military spouse who moved to Guam from the States in July 2010. She started her blog, Peyt’s Island, as a way to keep friends and family informed about what island life is like. Over time, that space transformed into a forum for writing about her experiences discovering Guam’s beauty, and more recently its flavors. Peyton loves all Guam adventures, whether land or sea, and has a passion for sharing ideas about incorporating local produce into regular family cooking. At the Fresh Factor, Peyton shares recipes, interviews, and information about all things fresh on Guam.