Spokane Valley couple defy winter with hydroponic farm
Stewart and Cheryl Fry produce lettuce, plants for months
Stewart Fry squints hard against the spring sun as he harvests a head of red butter lettuce at his Spokane Valley farm. Fry and his wife, Cheryl, have been growing the lush heads of local lettuce for months.
This is no April Fools’ joke. On this recent early spring afternoon the outside temperature had barely topped 20, but inside the C&S Hydro-Huts greenhouse it was a sunny 70 degrees – the perfect temperature for leafy greens.
The Frys launched the business late last year. Stewart Fry finished the greenhouse – a kit he ordered online from CropKing – in late September and they planted their first lettuce a few weeks later.
Since then the 44-by-136-foot greenhouse has been awash in its namesake color. It takes about 55 days to grow a head of lettuce in the hydroponic operation. The plants are fed by a circulating solution of water and mineral salts.
“We use about a 10th of the water a crop farmer would use to grow these same plants,” Fry says. “It’s all recycled and reused, and when the water has been used up – you can only run it so much – it goes out and irrigates the lawn.”
Walking down the rows of greenery, Stewart Fry points out the types of lettuces and plants. They’re growing mainly butterhead, Romaine, red leaf and green leaf lettuces. The Frys are experimenting with kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard, microgreens, baby lettuces, arugula, basil and edible flowers.
Stewart Fry operates Big Bear Storage in Otis Orchards and says he originally planned have his agricultural land near Harvard Road rezoned, but Spokane County planners denied the request. That’s when he and his wife decided to return to an idea they’d considered when they built the storage facility.
Cheryl Fry has been a childcare provider for more than 13 years. Now that the youngest child in their blended family is 12, she is ready for a new job. Like any career switch, starting the greenhouse has been nerve-wracking – and fun.
“I’ve done a little gardening, but I’ve never really been a good gardener,” Cheryl Fry says, laughing.
“Well, you are now,” Stewart Fry says, standing amidst the greenery.
For their effort, the lettuce is more beautiful and delicious than they imagined. “I used to be a bagged lettuce buyer. Not anymore. There is no way… This is so fresh and so different than what you get in the bag and it hasn’t been handled by a trillion people by the time you get it,” Cheryl says. “Stewart and I are the only ones who touch it.”
That’s something that Charlie’s Produce buyer Duane Ruegsegger likes to highlight about the C&S lettuce. And because it is grown without soil, there’s no gritty dirt to rinse. The lettuce is not considered organic because of the minerals used, but no chemical sprays or fertilizers are spread over the plants.
The Frys can get the lettuce into local restaurants and kitchens fast.
California greens often have been out of the ground a week and a half to two weeks before they get to Spokane area supermarkets, Ruegsegger says. C& S lettuce is sometimes just hours from harvest when it is delivered.
“I called Stewart and he harvested Sunday for me and delivered it on Monday and I can get it going out to my customers by Monday evening,” Ruegsegger says.
Fry’s year-round operation also means they can keep the price steady at $3 per head, no matter the season. The cost of lettuce at most stores fluctuates depending on season, weather conditions, and availability.
They’ve already survived record snows. “I sweated a little bit and looked at the ceiling a lot, but I didn’t lose one head of lettuce. The heat inside keeps the snow off the greenhouse for the most part,” Stewart Fry says.
And the C&S lettuce can last for up four weeks in the fridge. Really.
The Frys harvest it with the roots attached. Buy it in one of the plastic containers they sell and the leaves stay crisp and lush long after other lettuces would have turned into slimy mush.
“When you take it out, peel off what you want and then just rinse the root underwater so it’s good and wet and then put it back in the package,” Stewart Fry says.
Latah Bistro Chef David Blaine says the restaurant has been using the C&S butter lettuce.
“We’re really excited that someone has filled an empty space within the marketplace because it’s very difficult in this town to adjust a menu seasonally in a way that still allows people to eat their salads 12 months out of the year,” he says.
Blaine is known for his enthusiasm for local foods and support of those trying to bring it to the market. He says there’s been talk by others who considered growing local greens in the winter, but no one took the leap until now.
“Those big leaves … are the result of someone taking a very big risk,” Blaine says.
Cheryl Fry says it’s been hard not to let the stress of starting a new business, along with the drumbeat of bad economic news get to her. Working in the greenhouse helps. “I love it. It’s quiet. It’s relaxing…but it’s really scary when you’ve got your whole life on the line.”
Stewart Fry believes that Spokane fares better than other communities during difficult times by supporting each other. “I was born and raised here in Spokane, and you go through the economic ups and downs and Spokane doesn’t seem to be hit as hard. I think that’s because most things are done around here locally, and our business supports the local economy.”
“Besides, people still have to eat,” he says.
They’re still adjusting their offerings as they hear from chefs, grocery stores and others about what they’d like to buy. They can harvest up to 1,000 heads of lettuce each week. In the meantime, any lettuce that hasn’t sold has been donated to local charities such as the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant, St. Vincent de Paul and area food banks.
The C&S lettuce is sold at Yoke’s Fresh Markets and some Super 1 stores for $3 per head. He also sells it at the Millwood Farmers Market, at 8919 W. Euclid Ave., noon to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and the Indoor Farmers’ Market at the Community Building, 25 W. Main Ave., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursdays for $2 per head, or $3 if you buy it in one of the reusable plastic containers.
There’s no real competition for local greens in the winter. Another group committed to local foods, Fresh Abundance, is starting work this summer on a geothermal greenhouse at its Spokane Valley location, says owner Brightspirit Hendrix. The structure will rely on energy captured and stored by the greenhouse to keep it cool in summer and warm in winter.
The Frys hope to work with Charlie’s Produce and area farmers to strengthen the supply chain to get locally grown foods to area stores. “More and more people are saying they want to eat local foods and I know people want to stay healthy,” Stewart Fry says.
For him, the new business has had a welcome side effect.
“I haven’t eaten so much lettuce in my entire life… I have actually lost about 12 pounds.”
Eating more lettuce also erases wrinkles and makes you smarter. … April Fools.
Here are some ways to dress up those spring greens from a few new magazines and cookbooks.
Six good ideas for your next salad from Fine Cooking “Fresh: 350 Recipes that Celebrate the Seasons”
1. Use nut oils in your dressing to complement a salad of mild-flavored lettuces such as butter and loose-leaf varieties. Walnut and hazelnut oils are terrific (especially paired with sherry vinegar). Finish the salad with some aged goat cheese, a few shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and some toasted nuts.
2. For a warm salad, try Batavian lettuces or baby romaine. Slice them thinly across the head, wash and dry, and then dress with a warm bacon and shallot vinaigrette. Or use as a base for a salad of warm potatoes and sausage.
3. Make composed dinner salads. Toss lettuces with you favorite vinaigrette and mound on dinner plates. On top, arrange cold sliced potatoes, leftover grilled meat or fish or good quality canned tuna, hard-cooked eggs, cooked vegetables, sliced tomatoes, sautéed or raw mushrooms, or a combination. Drizzle with a vinaigrette and pass more at the table.
4. For an easy, pseudo-Caesar dressing, stir 1 chopped anchovy fillet, 1 minced garlic clove, 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and about 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
5. For a great weeknight spring salad use a mix of various lettuces – as many different colors and textures as you can muster – dressed with a little red-wine vinegar, olive oil, a bit of Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper. A blend of 1 tablespoon vinegar and 3 tablespoons oil is usually enough for three large or four modest servings of salad.
6. Make a bistro salad with a variety of loose-leaf and butter lettuces. Toss with a vinaigrette of sherry vinegar and hazelnut oil, salt, and pepper, and mound on plates. Top with rounds of warmed goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts.
Asian Turkey Lettuce Wraps
Bon Appetit Magazine, 2002
Reviewers of this popular recipe from epicurious.com suggest adding two cloves of garlic while browning the turkey. Many also said they added water chestnuts for some crunch and sriracha sauce for heat. Some also altered the recipe by using half cilantro and half mint for in the wraps.
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 1/4 pounds lean ground turkey
1/2 cup purchased Asian peanut sauce
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce, plus additional soy sauce for dipping
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint plus 1/3 cup small mint sprigs
12 large butter lettuce leaves
Heat peanut oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Add turkey and sauté until brown and cooked through, breaking up with back of spoon, about 7 minutes. Add peanut sauce, hoisin sauce, and 1 tablespoon soy sauce; heat through. (Can be made 8 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Reheat in microwave or skillet, adding water by tablespoonfuls to moisten if necessary, before continuing.) Stir in cucumber and chopped mint. Season with salt and pepper.
Transfer turkey mixture to medium bowl. Place mint sprigs and lettuce leaves on platter. To make wraps, spoon turkey mixture onto lettuce leaf, add a few mint sprigs, fold in sides over filling, and roll up. Pass additional soy sauce alongside wraps for dipping.
Yield: 4 servings
Green Salad with Asparagus and Peas
From “Eating Well in Season: The Farmers Market Cookbook” by Jessie Price and the editors of Eating Well. This salad features two stars of the spring garden, asparagus and peas. Since the asparagus goes into the mix raw, look for the freshest, most tender spears and slice them into very thin rounds.
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup canola oil or extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 heads Boston or Bibb lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
2 cups very thinly sliced fresh asparagus (about 1 bunch)
2 cups shelled fresh peas (about 3 pounds unshelled)
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives or scallion greens
Combine lemon zest and juice, oil, sugar, salt and pepper in a large salad bowl. Add lettuce, asparagus, peas, tomatoes and chives (or scallion greens); toss to coat.
Yield: 8 servings, about 2 cups each
Approximate nutrition per serving: 113 calories, 7 grams fat (1 gram saturated, 56 percent fat calories), 3 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrate, no cholesterol, 3 grams dietary fiber, 152 milligrams sodium.