Fullerton farmer grows lettuce year-round with help of hydroponics

Victoria Lusk vlusk@aberdeennews.com
Farm Forum

Larry Schumacker has always loved playing in the dirt.

That used to mean that, during winter months, his green thumbs became twiddling thumbs.

Not anymore.

“I thought, ‘Why can’t we do something year-round?’ And that’s when I went to Jodi,” said Schumacker, 62, of Fullerton, N.D.

That would be Jodi Bruns at the North Dakota State University Extension office in Ellendale. She and others at the office helped Schumacker develop Larry’s Lettuce, which has a growing system capable of producing more than 3,000 lettuce plants every 30 to 35 days.

That’s the beauty of hydroponics, a method of growing plants without soil. Instead, mineral nutrient solutions are used. And the plants grow inside.

While tomatoes have always been his passion, lettuce is the ticket, Schumacker said.

Tomatoes have an 80- to 90-day turnaround. Which is to say lettuce allows the business a quicker return on its investment.

On Jan. 15, Schumacker had over 3,000 plants germinating and waiting to be planted in his metal building. There, the plants thrive in a warm, controlled environment that heats up under fluorescent lighting.

Schumacker hopes to also start growing in a newly constructed greenhouse, capable of hosting another 3,200 plants, yet this month.

But what does he do with it all?

“That’s been my dilemma, the marketing end of it. There’s a lot of interest in it, but it’s not cheap doing what I do. With the cost of my production, it’s a little higher than others,” he said. “I’m struggling with that, to be honest with you.”

But there are options — and some repeat customers.

Schmacker supplies a few local restaurants and grocery stores. He attends farmers markets in the summertime, and he’s working on negotiating with public school systems, he said.

“I’d like to get hooked up with someone who can order in bulk,” Schumacker said.

The lettuce is harvested one day and delivered to customers the next. And because it’s grown in a controlled environment, consumers don’t have to worry about diseases like Ecoli, he said.

Growing pains, benefits

Schumacker is lifelong grower who got his start like many others — in his mother’s garden at a very young age.

“I was always helping my mom pick (vegetables), so it’s in my blood,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons why Schumacker bought farmland right after graduating high school.

“I wanted to be a farmer so I didn’t go to college. Then, in the ’80s when times got tough, I had to get out of farming,” he said. “But I still wanted to play in the dirt.”

He found employment as a hired man for other farmers, worked in hog confinement and butchered a few chickens, all while maintaining his summer garden — something he continues to find very rewarding.

Going from growing produce in the ground to hydroponics has been an “every day” learning curve, he said. That’s one of the reasons why he couldn’t be more thankful for the help from NDSU Extension, he said.

Schumacker’s grows have been rewarding for others, too.

He often hosts classes from area schools or other groups, such as 4-H clubs and Boy Scout troupes.

Schumacker hit a milestone of 100,000 pounds of food donated in 2014. In 2016, he was named Hunger Relief Champion by the Great Plains Food Bank of North Dakota, which has long benefitted from his lettuce operation.

“I get the biggest satisfaction out of doing that,” he said. “I don’t mind giving back at all.”

Hub City Hydroponics

One man is spearheading the effort to get more hydroponics in Aberdeen.

Josh Rhoden has created Hub City Hydroponics, which will host its inaugural meeting Saturday. It will be at 3 p.m. on the fifth floor of the Citizens Building, 202 S. Main St.

“We can grow our own produce right here in the Aberdeen, and why not reduce our entire community’s carbon footprint?” Rhoden said.

Rhoden’s goal is to provide locally grown produce, as well as education, to the community. The larger goal is to eventually have a hydroponics community garden.

“That’s what I’d love to do,” he said.

It would include elevated beds for those with mobility issues, he said.

There are around 90 people who have expressed interest in the first meeting on Facebook, Rhoden said.

“If even a third of those show up, it’s a win,” he said. “And even if I’m not the one that’s successful with this, if I teach someone who is, that’s a win, too.”

Follow @vlusk_AAN on Twitter.

Larry’s Lettuce

Town: Fullerton, N.D.

Phone: 701-680-2472

Email: geomatoes@gmail.com

Website: larryslettuce.weebly.com

Facebook: Larry’s Lettuce

Hub City Hydroponics inaugural meeting

When: 3-5 p.m. Saturday

Where: CREATE Aberdeen, 202 S. Main St., fifth floor of the Citizens Building.

For more information, find and like Hub City Hydroponics on Facebook.