February 21, 2013 | Volume 43, No. 7

Prices push produce effort

The rising cost of local produce has prompted Whiterock Nursery to offer more edibles and to plant two months earlier in the year. The company also is investigating selling fresh greens in local grocery stores, co-owners Jack and Toni Smith said this week.

Jack Smith said spending almost $7 on a six-ounce bag of spinach greens was the turning point for him. “That’s about $24 per pound for spinach, and from where?”

Smith expects to have organic lettuce for sale in a month and may have sprouts and micro-greens in less time than that. Starting last month – two months earlier than last year – he and wife Toni planted tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce blends, corn, broccoli, onions, sweet corn, garlic, beets, turnips, cucumbers and zucchinis.

Squash plants there are about eight inches high and radishes about half that tall. “I was actually eating some beet greens today. By May, we should be able to dig up fresh potatoes,” Smith said this week.

He expects to have beets, zucchinis and cucumbers ready for sale by then as well.

A hike in produce attributed to cold weather in California and the Southwest is helping Smith compete. Another factor is warm, local weather that is keeping down the cost of heating his 10,000-square-foot greenhouse on FAA Road.

Using plastic walls as dividers, Smith has partitioned off his greenhouse into smaller “hot” and “cool” rooms, under 1,000-watt grow lights. Seedlings and warm-weather plants stay at a constant 70 degrees in the “hot” room, while lettuce and cool-weather vegetables are in an adjoining room at 62 degrees.

A wood boiler that powers an in-floor heat system Smith put in three years ago cut his winter heat bill to about $5,000. “One winter I spent $30,000 on fuel. We couldn’t afford to do it if we had to buy oil. And I think the plants like the wood (heat) better.”

Smith opened the nursery in 1997, selling flowers, landscape plants and starts. He said he wasn’t expecting to get into the vegetable business, but said he likes the prospect of helping the town become more self-sustainable, and he’s proud to be providing four wintertime jobs. “We’re excited.”

Mayor Stephanie Scott, who worked as staff for a borough sustainability commission and grows spinach, arugula and lettuce in her own greenhouse, this week said she was “totally jazzed” by Smith’s venture.

“If ever I saw the definition of a businessman, this is it. He’s seeing a problem and has a solution that will benefit him and the community. It’s terrific. I’ll be one of his first customers,” Scott said.

She said Haines was recently recognized by officials with a Juneau-based Soil and Water Conservation District as a potential site for commercial agriculture. She pointed to other initiatives at locally grown food under way at the Haines School and Chilkoot Indian Association.

“Agriculture is resurrecting itself here in Haines. It’s becoming more economically beneficial to grow things here. It’s very exciting,” Scott said.