Lettuce Heads puts a fresh spin on vegetables

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Kurk and Nick Ziegler, Lettuce Heads
Fifth generation farmers, and cousins, Kurk and Nicholas Ziegler, started Lettuce Heads aquaponics farm in 2014 to provide fresh, local produce. (Catie Noyes photos)

WELLINGTON, Ohio — Fifth generation farmers, and cousins, Kurk and Nicholas Ziegler knew they wanted to get back to their roots when they started Lettuce Heads in Lorain County.

The pair grew up on a 600-acre traditional crop and swine farm, operated by their fathers, Kevin and Ken Ziegler, who are also part owners in the operation.

After reading an article on aquaponics, Nick’s father, Ken, pointed them in the direction of this new venture.

Getting started

Lettuce Heads Farm

5077 Jones Road, Wellington, Ohio

440-371-8637

lettuceheadsfarm.com

“We took a tour of an aquaponics facility and thought it was really neat, so at the end of 2014, we bought a greenhouse,” said Kurk.

It was one of the coldest winters in Ohio’s history when the Zieglers started construction on their new aquaponics facility.

“We built everything by hand,” said Nick, who added they recycled old storage tanks from the farm to use as the fish tanks, built six raised beds and, with the help of their fathers, plumbed and ran electric to the facility.

The greenhouse was completed in November of 2014, but the first year did not go smoothly.

“We put in the first seeds March 3, 2015, and subsequently killed all the fish,” said Kurk, which he said is not uncommon with aquaponic startups.

The tilapia produce the nitrates necessary to fertilize the aquaponics system. That first year, the Zieglers experienced a spike in ammonia and nitrates, which is deadly to the fish.

“You have to get the bacteria under control,” said Kurk. “It takes about a year to get into full swing.”

Luckily, the Zieglers had started a two-acre outdoor garden, which Kurk said served as a buffer that first year.

Aquaponics
Lettuce Heads uses an aquaponics system to grow its vegetables. Leafy greens grow on rafts with their roots hanging in a foot of water fertilized by tilapia.

What is aquaponics?

“The most simple definition of Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) that grows fish and plants together in one integrated system,” according to a website called the The Aquaponic Source.

Lettuce Heads uses two 1,000-gallon tanks with 250 tilapia each to produce the nutrients necessary to feed the plants.

“They eat the food and their waste fertilizes the system,” said Kurk.

A filtration system catches the solid material from the fish, and water and nitrates are transported to the plants using a gravity flow system.

Water travels 80 feet down the greenhouse, plants absorb the nitrogen, and the water flows back, where it is recycled back into the fish tanks.

Plants are grown in a deep water culture system, which means they are planted into foam rafts with the roots growing in a foot of water.

“It’s a very natural system; a symbiotic relationship,” said Kurk.

“We’re as certified organic as you can get without being certified,” said Nick.

Leafy greens

Lettuce Heads specializes in leafy greens, growing bok choy, Swiss chard and several varieties of lettuce.

“Our goal is to fill the greenhouse with lettuce,” said Kurk. They are also experimenting with things like avocados, rhubarb, pineapple and aloe.

Outside, the Zieglers have around four acres of turnips, radishes, carrots, squash, peppers, tomatoes, and flowers, with hopes of starting a cut-your-own flower patch.

It takes about five to six weeks to have a harvestable product, which they offer through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

The Zieglers started their CSA program in July of 2015 with just 10 subscribers. The current number of subscribers fluctuates, Kurk said.

“We’ve had as many as 40, but are currently around 10 with hopes of growing to over 50,” he said.

Customers can sign up for the CSA here and choose either a five- or 10-week program.

For $30 a week, customers can customize a box full of leafy greens and other vegetables and arrange to pick up their box at Lettuce Heads, the Medina Farmers Market or New Beginnings Church in Amherst.

Lettuce Heads
Lettuce Heads specializes in leafy greens, growing bok choy, swiss chard and several varieties of lettuce in their greenhouse. They are also experimenting with things like avocados, rhubarb, pineapple, and aloe.

Fresh and flavorful

“We have a lot of customers who won’t eat any other lettuce but ours,” said Kurk.

“We want our turn-around window within 24-48 hours,” said Nick, who said they pick and pack produce the day before delivery. “I think that plays a big part in flavor,” he said. 

Kurk said this also gives their product more longevity. “We don’t offer shipping of our product because that defeats the whole local movement.”

Lettuce Heads also partners with local farms to expand its CSA offerings, including honey from Elk Creek Honey, of Wellington; hamburger and beef from Flynn Show Cattle, also in Wellington, and eggs from Front 9 Farm, in Lodi.

“We want to give people options for what they might need for the week,” said Kurk.

Big investment

Kurk and Nick said they are fortunate to have the support from their family to get their farm underway.

Their grandfather had given each grandson a piece of land, which they do their outdoor vegetable production on, and Nick’s father Ken, owns the land that the greenhouse sits on.

All together, the Zieglers have around $70,000 invested in the aquaponics facility and around $25,000 in equipment, with additional investments of around $30,000 to $50,000 being added this year for a wood burner, greenhouse additions, wash shed and walk-in cooler.

The Zieglers received some government cost-share through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, and are working on additional grant funding.

“We were lucky to have land. That is a massive investment,” said Kurk.

Lettuce Heads
Lettuce Heads start their greens out in seed trays before transplanting them onto the foam rafts that float in a foot of water. It takes about five to six weeks to have a harvestable product.

The move toward organic

It was an interesting dynamic, making the jump to an organic vegetable operation from a traditional hog farm.

“It’s a different clientele,” said Ken Ziegler, who noted working on the commercial hog farm doesn’t involve the level of public interaction that Lettuce Heads does.

“But I think it’s a good thing,” he said — giving people fresh local produce and a connection to the farmers that grow it.

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Catie Noyes lives in Ashland County and earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture communications from The Ohio State University. She enjoys photography, softball and sharing stories about agriculture. Formerly a reporter for the Farm and Dairy, Catie is now pursuing her master's degree in education.

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