Local hydroponics sprout lettuce revolution

by Peyton Roberts
The Guam Guide

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.

Mango Garden Salad

• 1 head hydroponically grown (on Guam!) head of lettuce (butter, red oak leaf, etc.)
• 2 mangos, peeled and sliced into one-inch pieces
• 1 cucumber, sliced

Wash and distribute lettuce into four individual salad bowls. Top with cucumber and mango slices. Serve with your favorite dressing or keep it local and try Calamansi Poppy Seed Vinaigrette (Page 28).

Consider incorporating local foods into your dinner parties. Your guests with appreciate the extra flavor, and you’ll get some new recipes under your belt!

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