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  • Norfolk Farms

Lettuce Alive produces year-round greens

Imagine the concept of having lettuce 365 days a year in Canada


The trough at the end of the rows has flowing water that is pumped into each row to feed the plants.
The trough at the end of the rows has flowing water that is pumped into each row to feed the plants.

Nearly three decades ago, that concept was brought to Southwestern Ontario when Gib and Lorna Jones started growing hydroponic lettuce. Located on Windham Line, that business, which became known as Lettuce Alive, brought the freshest lettuce to Ontario farm markets and grocery stores.


The concept was a game changer for the consumer wanting fresh produce. In the middle of winter, any lettuce would have had to come from California, Florida or Mexico. Typically, by the time it hit store shelves, it had been at least a week from harvest, and often longer.

Lettuce Alive presented an alternative – lettuce which was grown in Ontario and was still fresh. It was like having fresh local-grown Ontario produce year-round.



The roots of this Boston lettuce can be seen growing underneath one of the troughs.
The roots of this Boston lettuce can be seen growing underneath one of the troughs.

Like a breath of summer in winter, rows of green and red hydronic leaf lettuce showcase two of the products offered by Lettuce Alive.
Like a breath of summer in winter, rows of green and red hydronic leaf lettuce showcase two of the products offered by Lettuce Alive.

Not long after the business started, Eric and Joyce Maaskant bought the farm across road in 1994. Eric grew up in the country – although not on a farm – but knew he wanted to be on a farm after working in the grain business. He started growing part-time for Lettuce Alive after it took off and demand increased.


Then, in 1998 the Jones wanted out of the business, it was natural the Maaskants be given the first right of refusal. Eric and Joyce bought the 32-acre farm and moved across the road.

Although Eric knew how to grow the product, he had to learn the marketing side of the business.


Today, Lettuce Alive produces red and green leaf lettuce, Boston lettuce, some romaine lettuce and basil.


Growing hydroponic lettuce starts when pelletized lettuce seeds are started in Jiffy pellets, one seed per pellet. They are set in a germination table and watered from overhead. About two weeks after planting, the seed has germinated and is ready to be transferred to the hydroponic trough. There it is grown with nutrient film technology.


“The water is constantly flowing through the trough and there is a film of water at all times,” Eric said, adding liquid fertilizer is added to the water.


Eric buys the base ingredients for the fertilizer and then blends his own concentrate to add to the water.


In the summer, seed to harvest takes about six weeks. In the winter, that time is extended to 10 to 12 weeks.


“That’s mainly due to the lighting and temperature, but mainly lighting,” Eric said.


At any time, there is lettuce growing at five different stages in the Lettuce Alive greenhouses so there is a constant supply. Each stage is about a week to 10 days apart.


When harvest time comes, the lettuce is harvested by hand with the root on, and any yellow leaves are removed. Since the lettuce is grown on a table at waist height, harvesting doesn’t require any devices for those harvesting when working low to the ground, as is often the case in greenhouse operations. Once the lettuce is harvested, it is packaged directly in a clam shell or plastic sleeve, dependent on who the end customer is.


Lettuce Alive products may be seen in local grocery stores, dependent on the wholesalers which buy it. Eric said Foodland is one local retailer that carries his products. Although most of his product is sold in Toronto, he also has a few customers who pick up his produce.


Besides the husband and wife team, Lettuce Alive has a couple of part-time employees and a part-time driver.


Although there isn’t the acreage like on most farms – the land on the farm is rented out for cash crops – the Maaskants are still challenged by increasing costs, such as labour, fertilizer, packaging and fuel.


“It’s getting tougher all the time with all the increased input costs,” Eric said.

There are no plans for expansion in the near future. 

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