“You’ve heard of enlightenment, right,” he says.
“Well this is en-lettucement.”
We crack up. The tour continues.
We walk through the greenhouses with him spouting knowledge, me with pad of paper and number two pencil in hand.
I was spending the morning with Tony Bono of Flora Ridge Farm. It’s a hydroponic operation that he and his wife, Joy have run for over ten years in Mount Airy, North Carolina.
By the elaborate setup, I had assumed Tony had always done this. But like a growing number of today’s family farms, Flora Ridge is a first (and possibly single) generational farm.
“I started out in restaurants,” he shared. “My dad owned a popular sandwich shop in Pennsylvania, and I opened my first deli at 21. I make the best cheese steak sandwich you’ll ever taste!”
But just as business was peaking, he decided to move on. “I was young and owning your own restaurant is so demanding.” It’s one of the reasons he has so much respect for his customers in the restaurant business.
WELL, THAT BEING SAID, HOW DID YOU GET INTO HYDROPONIC GROWING TONY?
He said he had held several jobs and endured a lot stress. One day he decided to follow what felt best, what he loved to do.
Flora Ridge is such a technical operation. It amazed me to find out he’s self-taught with a bit of help from his equipment supplier, Crop King.
He said it’s “a lot of trial and error and a lot of investigation.” Sometimes you try growing something you think will be just great and then it doesn’t sell or it’s growing cycle is too long or the pattern of growth doesn’t work well with the setup.
“You have to keep adapting.” It reminds me of advice I was given to fail fast and not be afraid to fail often.
He hunches over to the ground. “Well, for starters, why do I want kill my back doing this when I could stand upright and work like this.” He stands beside the waist-high growing tables.
It’s doesn’t work for vegetables that grow deep like roots or high like corn, but for greens the man does have a great point.
“Plus plants receive nutrients when it rains.” Here, they are continuously being fed hydroponically.
Also working in the greenhouse keeps his work schedule more consistent. Pouring rain or bitter cold weather doesn’t slow him down. He says “neither does a thunderstorm”. I look around at the metal structure rods and tell him with a smirk that I would pass.
Tony and Joy start the plants as seedlings in rockwool cubes. Rockwool is a horticultural growing medium made from natural ingredients like volcanic rock. It gives seeds a moist, oxygen rich place to root without the need for soil.
Each greenhouse includes an intricate filtration system that is monitored electronically. The system can even send Tony text alerts if anything, like PH, is off.
To harvest he pulls each row out and carries them out on his head. He swears it’s not as awkward as it sounds.
They harvest, clean the row and then start again.
More than seven varieties of lettuces and romaine are grown onsite, plus basil, arugula, watercress and spinach.
“Spinach has been selling like crazy!” He continues to increase his harvested supply for farmer’s markets and easily sells fifty pounds in a single market. He’s been asked to grow spinach year-round to meet demand but, even in a controlled environment, he says it thrives best in cooler months. I picked up some for Harrison and I while I still could. (New spinach recipe coming later this week!)
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED THE HARD WAY?
“Not to just grow what everyone wants you to grow.” Early on he learned that with the growing cycle lasting a few months, by the time it was time for harvest chefs had changed their menus and the item was no longer needed.
Although he is more calculated now, he still is open to growing specific items for some chefs and is working with Chef Tim at Spring House on a special crop now.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT THIS LIFE?
He says he loves the feedback and appreciation shared by customers at the markets, like “this is the best spinach I have ever had.” The growing process is also quite therapeutic for him.
WHERE CAN WE BUY AND TASTE FLORA RIDGE PRODUCTS?
Until we en-lettuce again,