Greenhouse lettuce production has its risks and rewards in Alabama. Jeremy Pickens, Alabama Assistant Extension Professor in Horticulture at Auburn University, cautions producers to do their homework before diving headfirst into this potentially rewarding venture.
“It’s a considerable amount of expense compared to field production. You just really need to know what you’re doing before you commit to it,” Pickens said. “The benefits of growing in a greenhouse are, you can turn out a crop faster. It’s going to be a high-quality crop. In many cases, there’s less pesticide use. But the downside is, it costs more money to grow indoors.”
It is expensive just to build a greenhouse and operate it year-round. Pickens estimates to build and own a greenhouse can cost producers anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 depending on how many bells and whistles you want to accessorize the greenhouse with. Labor is a major expense as well. Labor can cost as much as 28 cents per head of lettuce.
Producers must also consider competition from states out west. California and Arizona account for 95% of all the lettuce produced in the U.S.
“It is a high-quality product and produced very inexpensively and can get shipped across the country in very little time. It is most often for chefs and be available in a bag, chopped product. It’s already triple rinsed, they don’t have to do anything with it but open the bag and go,” Pickens said. “I don’t think you need to compete head-to-head with those guys because you’re going to lose. They can grow it so much cheaper than we can just because of their great climate and economy of scale.”
Those Alabama producers who follow through on lettuce production need to market their crop as a premium product if they are to be successful. They are selling local, fresh and flavor.
“There is a certain size pie, and you’re not going to make the pie any bigger. There’s a chance you could, but you’re trying to get a piece of it by maybe convincing a chef to switch over to your product. There are some opportunities in some of the more urban areas with these CSAs coming along for lettuce to make its way into a box. As far as selling it as a farmer’s market, it’s like anything, it’s got its risks. I don’t want to say there’s not an upside to it, but I wouldn’t go chasing for gold with it,” Pickens said.