( Fresh2o Growers )

One ripple effect of an E. coli outbreak linked to romaine is that customers tend to turn elsewhere for the lettuce variety, even when the Food and Drug Administration has deemed most production areas safe.

That’s what Fresh2o Growers, a hydroponic greenhouse grower in Stevensburg, Va., is experiencing, said Mary-Scott DeMarchis, Fresh2o Growers sales manager.

“Our demand over the last two weeks, because of the field problems we think, has grown exponentially. We were putting up our proprietary hydroponic system as needed, but over the past two weeks, we decided to put it up quicker,” DeMarchis said Dec. 7. 

Early in 2019, the company’s four acres of five million lettuce heads will increase to five acres and six million heads, she said.

The company has organic green and red bibb, green and red oak, leaf and salad blends, which can be harvested and delivered to East Coast customers within 48 hours, DeMarchis said. Customers include major grocery retailers, wholesale terminal markets and other wholesalers and retailers from Florida to Boston, she said.

Fresh2o Growers started in 2013, with a 12-acre greenhouse. Joe Van Wingerden owns Fresh2o Growers and also runs Prins USA, a contractor that builds greenhouses nationwide, DeMarchis said. 

Fresh2o Growers will increase its lettuce production by 1 million in its greenhouse in 2019. (Photo courtesy Fresh2o Growers)

The Virginia greenhouse started as an office with a little zone of crops to show the potential, and he kept adding to the greenhouse space when it was rented by a tulip grower. When that operation left, his son, Ben Van Wingerden, started an orchid growing business, and the elder Van Wingerden decided to grow hydroponic organic lettuce.

Not all of the greenhouse is being used, DeMarchis said. Some sections are being used as storage, as well as for other programs and products while they’re expanding the lettuce production.

“There’s also a seasonal program with starter plants like peppers and tomatoes that takes up 1-1 1/2 acres in springtime,” DeMarchis said. 

Although the Van Wingerdens own many acres of land surrounding the greenhouse, with this 2019 expansion, “we’re not building out; we’re building the production system that Joe developed with engineers and got patents for, within the greenhouse structure. We really do have the system going up next week and the plants going in.”