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Soil free is the way to be

By Staff | May 4, 2014

Deb Mertens is not a fan of mud, bugs or mosquitos, but ever since she was 15, the Wells resident wanted to garden.

Today, Mertens can be found in her own three bay greenhouse, home to eight different kinds of lettuce.

But, what is unique about the lettuce is how she grows it without soil.

The official name for this type of farming is hydroponics, dating back to ancient times when people would grow their crops in rivers.

“Many people, including myself, believe this form of growing produce is the future,” Mertens says. “It improves food security and offers more efficient resources.”

Mertens first learned about hydroponic farming from Steve Klingbiel.

“I started helping Steve in 2001,” Mertens says. “Working and experimenting in his greenhouse made me start dreaming of having my own greenhouse one day.”

Mertens and her husband, Ron, decided to take the leap in 2003, but realized having their own greenhouse at first was a lot of extra work and too much money.

“However, we came back around to the idea in 2010 and started working with cucumbers,” she says. “I worked with them from seeding through harvest. I love the process and I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”

Within three weeks of deciding to start again with the greenhouse idea, Deb Mertens found three available greenhouses for sale.

“My father (Dave Nichols) helped me disassemble them and move the greenhouse pieces to our property in Wells,” Deb explains. “Also, my step-son had every skill we needed. We all worked together and saw my dream come to fruition.”

Mertens used her greenhouse to grow and sell tomatoes to Klingbiel for two years, then started selling them to farmers’ markets in Albert Lea and Fairmont in 2013.

The hydroponic method offers more advantages, Mertens says.

“I can also offer my lettuce for sale during the winter months,” she explains. “The lettuce doesn’t require much light. This controlled environment agriculture works for me.”

However, the beginning stages of the hydroponic process did not turn out so well for Mertens.

“We lost crop production twice because we failed to check our water,” she says. “We sent a sample to Clemson University and they revealed our water had increased amounts of chlorine and sodium.”

Mertens was relieved because she thought she was doing something wrong. They ended up getting a reverse osmosis system, which cleans the dissolved minerals out of the water, making it pure.

Last year Klingbiel recommended Mertens name to LaBore Farms owner Michelle Keller, who was interested in selling her hydroponic business in Faribault.

After two months of working out details, Mertens bought LaBore Farms on Sept. 1, 2013, from Keller.

“I took over all of her inventory and the equipment,” Mertens explains. “I converted from growing tomatoes over to growing lettuce, which took lots of time and money.”

Mertens admits there was a learning curve because of the different growing systems between tomatoes and lettuce.

“I’m still getting used to the lettuce and the different work routine,” she says. “Michelle has been consulting with me, also. She is fantastic and supportive.”

Keller informed Mertens that the hydroponic lettuce business takes up nearly 80 hours per week. Mertens admits the job is not easy and requires a lot of time; she says 40-50 percent of the work is cleaning.

“I even have an invention idea to help speed up the process,” Mertens adds. “It involves having rotating brushes and sprayers automatically cleaning trays.”

Way of Life Gardens is the name Mertens’ business. Her business grows LaBore Farms lettuce and according to Mertens, she didn’t want to do away with the LaBore Farms name.

“People near the Twin Cities know the LaBore Farms name and it has a great reputation,” Mertens explains. “But, I?also wanted my business to build its own name.

Mertens sells directly to some Twin Cities based co-ops, Selby and the Mississippi Market.

Also, one customer Mertens is proud to have is the United South Central Schools system.

“I am involved in the farm to school program. Way of Life Gardens produces the lettuce for the schools’ salad bar.” she says. “I would love to get into more southern Minnesota schools.”

Mertens greenhouse holds 8,000 plant spaces. The area of the greenhouse is 53 x 96 which is roughly 5,000 sq. feet.

“On the east side of our current greenhouse, we will be expanding and adding a 63 x 100 foot greenhouse, which will house additional lettuce growing channels,” Mertens says. “Then on the west side, we will be expanding a 72 x 150 foot greenhouse to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.”

The plan is to have the additions finished by 2016, she says. The end date will depend on financing and the workers.

“I have been very blessed with the workers who have helped me get to where I am,” Mertens says. “My husband has been fantastic and John Kruse was very helpful when we switched from growing tomatoes to lettuce.”

Once Mertens finishes her cleaning invention, she will be planning to hire two to four part-time workers to transplant, harvest and clean.

“Ideally, I would love to have an intern learn about this hydroponics process and experiment with new ideas,” Mertens says.

Way of Life Gardens, the grower of LaBore Farms lettuce, is currently looking to get more involved in local outlets.

Mertens will have her lettuce at farmer markets from Austin to Fairmont and it is also available for direct sale.

“We have a two week “use by date” on the label,” Mertens says. “However, people have told me our lettuce will last a month if it is refrigerated and secured in a closed container.”

Liz Mertens, 17, and Darcy Mertens, 14, help their mother with the greenhouse when they can.

“My daughters will assist me in transplanting, cleaning and harvesting the lettuce,” Deb Mertens says. “My older son Karl will be coming home to oversee the building of the second greenhouse.”

Mertens admits it can be overwhelming at times, but she believes her faith will succeed.

“My love and passion is what keeps me going,” Mertens says. “This business has a lot of potential to become quite profitable.”