Jeff Adams started growing lettuce after 20 years of working as a contractor.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Adams

Like others with a strong work ethic and an affinity for the outdoors, Jeff Adams enjoys what he does for a living. It’s demanding work to simultaneously grow and sell multiple varieties of lettuce — a job that, for him, doesn’t let up any time of the year. However, it’s worth the time he gets to spend in greenhouses and in the community learning the intricacies of growing and selling hydroponic produce.

A contractor by trade for 20 years, Adams didn’t have any experience with controlled environment agriculture (CEA) before he constructed his first two CropKing greenhouses in 2011 (He has since built two more). He did, however, have a passion for farming. He owned about 30 heads of cattle and grew lettuce in the backyard of his 13-acre Cumming, Ga., home.

Adams became interested in CEA and CropKing’s computer-controlled, hydroponic greenhouses when he read about R & G Farm, a lettuce grower based out of Dublin, Ga., in Hobby Farms magazine (Editor’s note: Read Produce Grower’s story on R & G Farm at bit.ly/2lsRZDe). “I started researching it for about two years, and went and took some classes through CropKing on it and just decided, ‘What the heck?’,” he says. “I think it might fit what we want to do in our passion for farming and growing. And we pulled the trigger. It’s been five years now.”

With a total of eight employees, a growing customer base and fresh, quality lettuce, Adams’ business, Circle A Farms, continues to grow.

Edible education

Once Adams began growing produce in a greenhouse, it didn’t take long for him to realize that growing hydroponically is much different than growing in the ground.

Through its training materials and information, CropKing has helped Adams make his operation a success. “They have such a wealth of knowledge, and they’ve done it for so long, that, to me, they’re just a viable source that I’d hate to be without,” he says.

Adams' greenhouses control the environment — heating, cooling, air movement, nutrient supplies and carbon dioxide — through computers, he says. Adams has adjusted growth spacing by drilling small holes to accommodate growing baby lettuce.

Using nutrient film technique (NFT) trays, Circle A Farms grows nine varieties of lettuce, Adams says. “We grow bibb, romaine, spring mix, kale, arugula, basil and we do microgreens,” he says. “And there’s a couple other varieties. We do tropicana, frisee. All just leafy greens.”

Selling to local markets and consumers

Most of Circle A Farms’ customer base, which consists of stores and restaurants, are within about a 15-mile radius of the growing operation, Adams says.

Like many other CEA growers, Circle A Farms often markets directly to consumers through avenues such as local farmers markets. In January, it began delivering directly to customers’ homes through its new Farm to Porch program.

To participate in Farm to Porch, area customers find their location listed as a “zone” on circlealettuce.com and place a lettuce order, Adams says. “You either put a cooler out or we can sell you a cooler bag that you leave out, and then it’s delivered right to your porch,” he says.

I think a lot of people come into [CEA] like they’re going to make a lot of money — a get rich quick kind of deal — and that’s not the case, but there is some profitability. — Jeff Adams, Circle A Farms

Because Circle A Lettuce is grown in ideal conditions with computer-controlled nutrition levels, and sold to local markets, it has an approximately three-week shelf life, compared to lettuce that is shipped long distances, which often has a shelf life of only four to five days, Adams says. “It’s a great, wonderful product,” he says. “You just have to educate the consumer why they’re paying a little bit more for the product.”

When it comes to revenue streams for Circle A Farms, enough money comes in to provide Adams and his employees with a steady income, but that’s because of the hard work they put into the operation. “I think a lot of people come into [CEA] like they’re going to make a lot of money — a get rich quick kind of deal — and that’s not the case,” he says. “But there is some profitability.”

Growing pains

It is often difficult to predict what will happen from one day to the next, Adams says. Tip burn and other problems have arisen that have taught Adams and his employees how to best care for the lettuce.

When production hiccups take a toll on a crop, customers still have the same expectations as when production is going flawlessly, Adams says. “They get used to your consistency and they start thinking you can produce it like a widget, that you can just turn out as many as you can, when still, you have issues and you have problems, and you might lose a crop of bibb or a crop of something here and there,” he says.

Many factors, such as lettuce variety and time of year, determine production cycles, Adams says. Circle A Farms doesn’t track how many cycles it produces in a year because they are constantly changing and rotating. Some lettuces have rotations of 30 days, while others have rotations of 45 to more than 50 days.

“It never stops growing, so you can’t just shut it down and leave,” Adams says. “It’s kind of like having chickens, except with chickens you get a break every six or so many weeks. With this, you never get a break.”

Still, Adams says he finds his work affords him an honest living. He doesn’t mind the extra hours he puts in throughout the week. “If you don’t mind hard work, weekends, nights, whatever — things happen, problems happen, you’ve got to be around — it can be rewarding because the product we’re able to turn out is superior to anything that’s out there.”