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By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter Shoppers often ask David Goldman if his lettuce is organic, and when he answers that it is “hydroponic,” many of them walk away. No matter that the technique of hydroponics is about as environmentally friendly as you can get involving recycled water, natural plant food nutrients and no pesticides whatsoever. Or that hydroponic farming produces vegetables that are free from the environmental toxins often found in soil, and that they retain most of their vitamins and minerals. For the past two years Goldman, owner of Culinary Farms in Reseda, has been trying to eke out a living selling eight different types of lettuce grown hydroponically. And while many customers move on after hearing or reading the term, an increasing number appear to be developing a hankering for the produce. “I handle a lot of lettuce all the time, even organic lettuce, and there’s just never anything that looks as good,” said Benji Chankin, produce and deli manager at Follow Your Heart, a Woodland Hills natural foods store and restaurant, of Culinary Farms’ big bouquets of hydroponic lettuce. Follow Your Heart displays the lettuce to point up the idea that it is still living because the roots remain intact, but Chankin said that while first-time buyers may try it for that reason, they come back because it tastes better than other types of lettuce. “Ninety nine out of a hundred people prefer it,” he said. Goldman reports that his sales are about equally split between retail customers at farmers markets and wholesale customers at catering companies, supermarkets and health food stores. He is projecting 1999 sales of $350,000, which would be a 250 percent increase from his 1998 sales of about $100,000. Goldman charges his farmers market retail customers $1.50 a head, compared with $1.79 to $1.99 at Whole Foods Markets (depending on the season). Goldman’s $1.50-a-head price is three times the amount charged for most garden-variety lettuce at farmers markets, and about 20 percent more than organically grown lettuce. Despite the premium, Goldman reports that sales are soaring. Culinary Farms now employs five workers and the business has outgrown its current half-acre farm, sending Goldman in search of an alternative farm site of at least five acres. He says, with some urgency, that he’ll need that much space before the year is out because he has been approached by several supermarket chains interested in carrying his lettuce. “If I was to sell to one chain, I would have to sell them all this lettuce,” Goldman said, gesturing to his entire half-acre farm. “This method of growing lettuce is cheaper than growing it in the ground, but only in volume.” “Hydroponic” refers to a technique of farming in water. The crop is grown in long rows of plastic piping suspended off the ground. Holes are cut into the top of the piping, with the lettuce heads protruding through the holes. The roots extend into the piping interior, which is irrigated by a reservoir of nutrient-treated water that is pumped through the tubes. In winter, the apparatus is moved into a greenhouse. Used mainly in places like Middle East, hydroponic farming remains relatively obscure in the United States, where fertile soil is plentiful. But it is slowly catching on with many consumers seeking natural, pesticide-free foods. Not only is the hydroponic produce more nutritious than soil-grown varieties, it stays fresh longer, even without refrigeration. The lettuce is harvested with the roots intact, so consumers can take home a head, put it in water, and it will continue growing for weeks. “Some people get two cuttings out of it,” said Ray Hachiya, a buyer at Whole Foods Markets. “It’s living. It’s fresh and it’s pesticide-free.” Whole Foods, which has carried hydroponically grown lettuce from Hellandia Farms in Carpinteria for about a year and a half, has seen its sales skyrocket. “We started with five or six cartons a week, and we got it up to 70 to 80 cartons a week,” Hachiya said. Despite the growth, Hachiya points out that hydroponic lettuce is not for everyone. Ralphs, for example, has done well with the butterleaf kind, but when the store brought in a second variety, lollarosa, as well as hydroponically grown tomatoes, they flopped. “As far as Ralphs is concerned, it seems to be a specialty item,” said Terry O’Neil, a spokesman for the chain. “At present, customers aren’t clamoring for it.” For one thing, the price is high because of the electricity it takes to heat and water the greenhouses. Goldman’s electric bills can run to $400 a month in the winter. Then too, making the most of a hydroponic head of lettuce can be tricky business for the novice. Though the lettuce will continue to grow at home if placed in water, too much water will wilt it almost immediately. Undaunted, Goldman is forging on. “With the exception of the people who are drowning the lettuce, the response has been overwhelming,” he said. Goldman has tried to spread the word through the farmers markets where he sells in Burbank, Studio City, Hollywood and Santa Monica. “Part of this whole plan is to get to farmers markets so when I started offering it in the (super)markets, people would be familiar with it,” Goldman said. “There’s a ton of education we have to do.”

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