Extension Where You Are
Jamie Redmond, left, and Leigh Bailey, hydroponic farmers
Turning a New Leaf: Jackson couple grows pesticide-free produce
Leigh Bailey and her husband, Jamie Redmond, considered a number of options for a second career when the two real estate agents got married about four years ago.
“After we married, Jamie moved to Mississippi from Georgia, where he had been in real estate for more than 30 years,” explains Bailey, a Jackson native. “He didn’t really want to start over in real estate here, and I was ready for something new, too.”
Both Bailey and Redmond had gardened as a hobby in the past and love the outdoors, so they knew that, whatever their next venture was, it had to involve nature.
“We spent about a year or so kicking tires, looking at different businesses, deciding what we wanted to do,” Bailey says.
Then they read an article in Mississippi Farm Country, a Farm Bureau magazine, about St. Bethany Fresh, a family-run hydroponic tomato farm in Pontotoc.
“The greenhouse owner graciously gave us a two-hour tour of his farm,” Bailey says. “I was surprised that he was willing to show us his operation and explain in detail everything from his growing methods to where and how he sold the tomatoes. We learned a lot from that visit and very much appreciated his willingness to share his knowledge.
“He told us he could not even scratch the surface of demand in Mississippi for locally grown produce, and that more hydroponic growers in the state meant less produce being trucked across the country,” Bailey says.
So the two began vigorously researching the business. They visited other hydroponic growers in the state and across the country, asked lots of questions, took several classes, and studied the market in the Jackson area before opening Salad Days in 2014.
Their 18,000 square-foot business, based in Madison County, supplies local restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers markets with pesticide-free lettuce, tomatoes, basil, and cucumbers.
“Leigh and Jamie went about this the right way and have done really well,” says Rick Snyder, vegetable specialist with the MSU Extension Service, an organization the two rely on heavily for advice. “Hydroponic farming takes a lot more experience than any crop you grow in the field, so you really have to do your homework.”
Aside from the basic method of growing the crop, which is highly technical, hydroponic farmers also must have a good handle on the budget, Snyder says.
“They must know what their costs are as well as potential income,” says Snyder, who is based at the MSU Truck Crops Branch Experiment Station in Crystal Springs. “Although I normally recommend people start with one bay, Leigh and Jamie started with six bays and two different systems to accommodate vine crops and leaf crops. But I expect they will continue to do well if they keep asking questions and learning.”
That is exactly what they plan to do, Bailey says.
“There is a steep learning curve,” she says of the Dutch bucket system and the nutrient film technique they use. “There are so many variables to consider—weather, the number of daylight hours, humidity, pests, and diseases—even though the plants are in a controlled environment. I’ve read a lot and attended a lot of classes all over the country, but we’ve also had input and involvement from the Extension Service since we began our education process. We spent the day with Dr. Snyder early on, shared our plans, and he was excited about it. He’s done everything he could to help us.”
The two have been regular attendees at the Greenhouse Tomato Short Course since they began researching Salad Days. They were presenters at this year’s conference and allowed about 90 of the workshop attendees to tour their operation as part of the short course.
They have also called on other Extension specialists for help with pest and disease control, which can be more trying in a greenhouse environment.
“Everyone has been very helpful,” Bailey says. “They are quick to come visit us or coach us over the phone.”
Even though it has only been a year and a half, Bailey says business is good.
“We stay very busy. The restaurant community here has been very supportive,” she says. “We sell our lettuce with the roots on it within a day or two of harvest. It has about a two-week shelf life. Compared to what is available from California, there is very little waste because it is so fresh when it arrives in the kitchen. The chefs and stores we work with are very pleased with our produce.”
To learn more about Salad Days and where to find their produce, visit http://www.saladdaysproduce.com.
Potential greenhouse growers interested in learning more should attend the Greenhouse Tomato Short Course, a national conference held by Extension in the Jackson area every March. More information can be found at http://greenhousetomatosc.com.