Organic Specialty Lettuce Production in Tobacco Greenhouses
Tobacco farmers in the Southeast face uncertainty over the future of the quota system and a decreasing share of the world market. International competition, higher taxes, smoking restrictions, and public attitudes will likely limit profitability, eliminate small producers and initiate changes in many rural communities.
A large majority of tobacco plants are grown in greenhouses. As a result of the decrease in the tobacco quota in 1998, there is a significant amount of unused greenhouse space. Utilizing this space could help farmers make the transition from tobacco to other high value crops.
The producer utilized existing greenhouse space and equipment, that was formerly used to grow tobacco plants, to grow specialty lettuces. Float beds, float trays, seeders and tray filling devices, used for tobacco, were used as is or with minor adaptation.
He developed a growing, harvesting and marketing system for the specialty lettuces. The system is a “cut and come again” system with two cuttings possible before reseeding. He found that it took thirty days to produce the first cutting and twenty one days for the second cutting. The producer also found that 288 cell float trays worked better than the 200 cell trays.
The speciality lettuces (e.g. bibb, greenleaf, Lollo Rosso, red oakleaf) were grown organically and harvested as baby greens for salad mixes. Competitive advantages that would allow market entry are locally grown produce, organic, freshness, good shelf life and proximity to market. Target markets for sales are specialty food stores, small chain stores, and up-scale restaurants in urban areas.
Growing several species of lettuce together did not work well because of plant competition so the producer grew them separately and made mixes after harvest. Marketing was also problematic but the grower finally sold from his existing retail outlets. Customers responded well to the locally grown, pesticide-free specialty lettuces. They liked the flavor, texture and shelf life of the lettuce. The producer sold the lettuce for $3.50 to $4.00 for one-half pound. He found that wholesale prices needed to be in the $10.00 to $13.00 range per three pound box in order to stay competitive with California lettuce.