Oak Ridge Farms Hydroponics
48232 Oak Canyon Road
Ord, NE 68862
Lettuce with a story to tell
When people think of Nebraska they usually think of two things: corn and cows. No amount of re-branding can alter that image. It’s in the DNA of every resident. Although traditional agriculture has always been the backbone of the state, a new breed of farmer is emerging. Growers like Ryan David of Oak Ridge Farms Hydroponics in Ord are changing the way we grow our food and feed our communities.
The Rural Foodies decided to forgo our usual restaurant review and instead track down where the food we eat originates. Although most rural communities in Nebraska are surrounded by farmland, it can sometimes be a challenge to find locally sourced produce. We have become accustomed to the idea that if we don’t grow it ourselves in our backyard, our options are limited. Luckily in the past few years, farmers’ markets, CSA programs and community food groups have popped up in rural settings, starting a much needed dialog about the way we eat. Where once it was impossible to find produce at the grocery store that wasn’t imported from another country, we are now seeing local growers represented.
While shopping at a grocery store in Kearney, Oak Ridge Farms Hydroponics appeared on our radar. In a sea of colorless ice berg and wilted Romaine, an unexpected offering stood out amid the crowd. Bright green heads of Bibb lettuce with the roots still intact looked as if they had just been delivered from a nearby farm. After reading the label we quickly learned that it had arrived from not too far away. Seventy miles to be exact.
We want to know more
Wanting to know more about hydroponic farming in Nebraska, we headed to Ord to meet with the visionary behind this particular produce. Nestled into the rolling landscape and native grasslands of the Sandhills, Oak Ridge Farms is a compound made up of elements you would expect to see in this type of setting. However, among the many corrals and pick-up trucks sits a state-of-the-art greenhouse that reminds you this isn’t your typical Nebraska farmstead.
Ryan David is a self-taught hydroponic grower who entered the business because of his mother Barb’s interest in alternative agriculture. An avid gardener, the matriarch of the David family always had dreams of starting a greenhouse on their family’s land north of Ord. In 2013 her dreams came to fruition and the focus of their family farm shifted from raising sheep to growing produce.
But we disagree. This hydroponic operation seems to encompass a great deal of work. Like most small farmers, David is one of the hardest working people we have ever come across. When he’s not clocked in at his full time job with the county, he’s tending to the family’s lettuce production. Sadly, his mother passed away unexpectedly at the beginning of 2015 leaving David and his wife, Carrie, keepers of her vision. His mother would be proud.
Although the infrastructure of hydroponic farming differs greatly from traditional farming, the taxing work load is the same. In order to produce 1,200 to 1,800 heads of lettuce a week, a well-orchestrated series of trays and water lines meet their needs. The lettuce seed preferred by Oak Ridge Farms Hydroponics is imported from the Netherlands and sowed within a rockwool growing block so it can be properly monitored. Once the seed begins to grow, it is transferred to a sterilized tray to mature. There it is nourished by a 1,200 gallon water tank regularly circulating fresh water and nutrients. A computer regulates fertilizer, pH balance, conductivity and temperature. In a matter of six weeks in the summer months (nine weeks in winter), the lettuce is at full growth. Then it is packaged and ready to ship.
From point A to point B
A disadvantage of living in a rural setting and growing an extremely perishable crop is getting it out to consumers without compromising the product. Oak Ridge Farms lettuce is delivered by a refrigerated truck driven by any family member or friend with a little free time. It’s always a race against time to get the lettuce to customers. Currently, their Bibb lettuce is being purchased locally by public schools and hospitals as well as grocery stores and restaurants. So whether you are dinning at Sozo American Cuisine in Kearney, tending to your health at Mary Lanning Hospital in Hastings, or shopping at your local HyVee grocery store, you will know that a local farmer is being represented.
“I feel proud knowing I grow a healthy product that is grown and distributed in Nebraska,” David said.
And he should be proud. It takes a great deal of tenacity and perseverance to venture into an unknown field.
A couple weeks after our Rural Foodies trip to Oak Ridge Farms Hydroponics, I found myself in the same grocery store that first ignited my curiosity about locally grown lettuce. I placed a few containers of Bibb in my cart and suddenly realized the significance of knowing where my food comes from. I wasn’t merely getting a head of lettuce. I was getting a story. A story about a hardworking family on an idyllic farm just a stone’s throw from this supermarket. And that makes it taste even better!