Salad Days Produce

Salad Days Produce, A Hydroponic Approach to Agriculture

Sandra Yerges

After spending the majority of their careers devoted to selling real estate, Leigh Bailey and Jamie Redmond switched their craft to the selling of produce ten years ago. As outdoor lovers with backgrounds growing houseplants, backyard gardening, and planting food plots, the two wanted to find a community-based agricultural endeavor to grow from their shared interests. They settled in Mississippi after getting married later in life, and the idea generation stage commenced about where this new career change may take them.

Two years in the making, the pair finally settled on the idea of hydroponic farming after learning about the model from a feature in Mississippi State University’s Extension Service magazine. They contacted the featured hydroponic farmer from one of the stories in the publication, and they visited his operation to learn more about what went into this water-based farming practice.

Hydroponic agriculture is entirely different from traditional farming as it does not involve soil. Instead of taking the nutrients from the ground, produce grown hydroponically gains its nourishment from water boosted with the required nutrients to sustain it. This practice is highly sustainable as it does not require the use of large amounts of land or water and can produce high quality, safe produce year-round without chemicals or pesticides.

Because the water used for growing is not soaking into the soil and can be closely monitored by farmers, hydroponic agriculture is known to grow more produce with less water than farming in the ground. This practice also allows growers to maximize their space and the number of harvested products. According to Bailey, a typical six-acre lot of soil-grown produce can be grown in 18,000 square feet through hydroponics. This drastically reduces the amount of space required for harvesting while simultaneously offering a more plentiful harvest. 

With these new aspirations and benefits in mind, Bailey and Redmond decided to begin their own hydroponic farm. In the start-up of their company, their focus was twofold: lettuce and tomatoes. Bailey expressed they chose to grow these vegetables within a greenhouse from the origin of their business, which allowed them to continue growing year-round. With evaporative cooling systems utilized in the summer and heaters warming the greenhouse in the winter, the space maintains a regulated temperature to consistently grow throughout the year. Because of this controlled environment, however, more attention and regulation is required from those working on the farm.

The current Salad Days Produce team consists of Bailey and Redmond along with four full-time and three part-time employees. These individuals help keep the business afloat, especially during the busiest times of the year. This team was formed with the financial assistance of the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG), an expansion-based grant for the business.

Being that Bailey had many established relationships from those at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture as well as consistent information from their e-newsletters, she and Redmond quickly learned of the VAPG and its offerings. There were not many other grants available at the time that correlated to their business projections, so this grant was highly appealing for their future plans. Expanding their operations while switching to solely harvesting lettuce was one of the primary focuses of their business moving forward. With that said, they were left with some fear early on when they applied for the grant in March of 2020.

Only a few days after they submitted their application, the world felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as the shutdown left many small businesses with doubts. This uncertainty was felt by Bailey as she did not know whether she was going to receive the funds she had been striving toward. A few months later in September, her apprehension was alleviated as she found out the business received the funds it needed to support their plans. Even though there were revisions to the initial grant focus as restaurant-based plans were pushed to the sidelines, Salad Days Produce was excited to dive into a plan based on market expansion while removing tomatoes from their offerings.

In order to keep up with this new plan, the business required new lettuce equipment to switch into the greenhouse. Because the hydroponic tomato growing equipment is vastly different from the lettuce equipment, the VAPG helped fund the purchasing of these machines. This new equipment along with the growing number of employees from the grant funds allowed Salad Days Produce to continue to expand their business for their customers.

Although restaurants tend to be the most profitable customers for this farm, Salad Days Produce also has loyal customers in grocery store locations. The business works with three distributors, two locally based and one in the New Orleans area, who continue to be dependable shipment aids for their business. Being that restaurants and grocery stores often need shipments every day, the distributors have allowed the farm to cut down on delivery costs.

A special benefit of the Salad Days Produce lettuce is that it is sold with its roots connected to the lettuce head. This allows the plants to continue living for up to three weeks, and, as Bailey noted, “look as good as the day we picked them.” The customer response of this added benefit has been highly positive as it allows them to keep lettuce longer than the cut and bagged varieties. In turn, restaurants and everyday consumers alike can feel at ease that their lettuce is both shelf stable and fresh to eat for days. 

Bailey noted she is appreciative of all her customers as well as the help of the VAPG in their plan toward the future. Even with the pandemic causing a change in the initial business plan, Salad Days Produce was able to exceed its estimates in terms of business and staff expansion from the grant. With their determination to make their business-based dreams a reality, the Salad Days Produce team has shown it is always better late than never to feed into and grow your agricultural passion.