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Lettuce for all markets and all seasons
Here are some facts about lettuce that may surprise you: It is the most valuable vegetable crop in the United States, with sales of $2.2 billion in 2010. (Fresh tomatoes were a distant second at $1.4 billion.) Lettuce alone accounts for 19% of all fresh vegetable sales in the U.S. Iceberg lettuce is still the dominant type, accounting for 53% of total lettuce value, but its popularity has been dropping, while head and romaine lettuces have been increasing steadily and salad mixes have been skyrocketing in popularity.
Those statistics from USDA’s Economic Research Service are derived from wholesale production of lettuce, 98% of which occurs in California and Arizona. Although they aren’t directly relevant to local market farms, they do show the importance of lettuce to the American consumer: People want lettuce and they want it year-round.
If you have been treating lettuce as a minor crop, perhaps it’s time to take another look at the possibilities for increasing production and profits. You may be able to extend your season, expand into new distribution channels, and increase market demand with new types of presentation.
Markets for head lettuce are numerous. Farmers markets, CSA, restaurants, supermarkets, and institutional buyers are all potential buyers for head lettuce.
An emerging trend in lettuce sales are combination packs of mini head lettuces. They are often sold in supermarkets in clamshells and to restaurants in mixed boxes. Direct market customers also will be interested in these single serving heads. Johnny’s offers mini head varieties that produce fully formed but compact heads. Most are ready for harvest in about 45 days, 10-12 days faster than full head lettuce. Claremont and Breen are mini head green and red romaines; Dancine and Australe are mini green and red butterheads; Bambi and Winter Density are green mini bibbs and Razes is a red mini bibb; and Baby Oakleaf is a mini oakleaf.
Many head and mini head varieties are available as pelleted seed. The pellets are made of inert materials that make tiny lettuce seeds a uniform size and shape. Pelleting makes precision planting easier, whether sowing by hand or machine.
Baby leaf lettuce
Salad mix continues to be an important crop for many growers, despite being ubiquitous in supermarkets now. There’s still no way a bagged salad mix can compare with the vitality and flavor of just-harvested baby leaf mix.
Many experienced growers prefer to create their own signature mixes of colors and textures. They plant individual lettuce varieties, adjusting planting schedules based on experience, to allow for uniform harvest. Separate plantings allows for more control of the final product and reduces the likelihood of a total crop failure if one variety is more susceptible to disease.
Microgreens, the seedlings of lettuces, herbs, and other vegetables, are a super-quick crop with year-round income potential.
High seed and labor costs for microgreens demand that you get a good price for the finished product. We recommend you seek out markets, usually high-end restaurants, before you attempt microgreens in a big way.
Lettuce is a perishable crop, so the key to profitability is to grow just what you can sell, to seed at the final spacing so you don’t have to thin, and to schedule multiple successions. Johnny’s precision seeders are tools designed specifically for those goals. They range from the single row Glaser seeder, which is suitable for lettuce head production, to the Four-Row and Six-Row Seeders for making dense plantings of baby leaf lettuce. For growers who prefer to start head lettuce in the greenhouse, we have a wide selection of growing and planting tools and supplies. And check out our new harvest and seedling cart to get your flats of plants out to the field and your harvested lettuce back to the packing shed.
Harvesting salad mix is fast with Johnny’s exclusive Greens Harvester, the manual version of a band saw harvester. A scalloped knife blade cleanly slices the leaves, and a cloth basket catches them. A single worker can harvest up to 100 lb per hour. To complete the salad mix workflow, Johnny’s offers three salad spinners for washing baby leaf lettuce.
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Reprinted from JSS Advantage March 2012