How one Georgia family turned a hobby into a hydroponic business

Features - Grower Spotlight

The Edwards work together to grow and sell leafy green varieties at R & G Farm.

January 24, 2017

The Edwards family, from left to right: Riley, Alexis, Colby and Grace. R & G Farm grows hydroponic lettuce varieties for customers within a 50-mile radius of their operation in central Georgia.
Photo courtesy of R & G Farm

After staying home for several years to care for her two children, Alexis Edwards decided to find a hobby once they entered school. One of the conditions, she determined, was that it would have to be something that wouldn’t take her away from her family. That’s how Alexis started down the path to managing a hydroponic lettuce operation. Nine years later, Alexis’ hobby has evolved into a successful business that she enjoys and takes pride in, and her family has played a major role in helping shape it.

Situated on Alexis and husband Colby’s Dublin, Ga., property, R & G Farm specializes in hydroponically grown green Bibb, red oak leaf, green oak leaf, Lolla rossa and romaine lettuces. The family grows in two CropKing greenhouses, one they built in 2008 and another they built in 2015.

Alexis, who has a degree and background in teaching, has always liked to garden. A friend who was growing tomatoes in a Baxley, Ga., operation told her and Colby, who works full-time as a network manager for AT&T, about the technology. “She was so friendly and told us that nobody had a lettuce house like this in Georgia,” Alexis says.

When the Edwards first started R & G Farm, Colby called around to different restaurants and wholesale produce companies to ask what they would buy. The family started out growing and selling green Bibb lettuce, and it didn’t take long to catch on with customers. “All we did is take it to them and people fell in love with it. It’s so beautiful,” Alexis says. As requests for more lettuce came in, R & G Farm’s operations expanded.

Less-stressed lettuce

By hydroponically growing her lettuce in a greenhouse setting, Alexis has been able to produce year-round and protect against plant loss. She plants in the nursery, where it takes the seeds about a week to germinate. Then she moves the plants to the hydroponic system, where they remain for about five weeks until they are ready to be harvested.

Alexis sees more advantages to hydroponic growing than traditional soil farming. “From my experience, there are too many issues when you leave your plants out in the open,” she says. “Is it going to rain? Is there too much sun? Is there not enough sun? I can fix all that in my greenhouse. If there’s not enough sun, I can up the nutrients to get my plants to grow faster. If there’s too much sun, I can lower the nutrients so their tips don’t get burned. I have more control being in a hydroponic setting than a person out in a field has.”

The CropKing greenhouses, which measure 128 by 30 feet, utilize computers that take various measurements, and the hydroponic system continually provides nutrients to the lettuces. Some days, if Alexis is transporting, picking or sending out lettuce, she is in the greenhouses for hours. Other days, she just quickly checks on the computer and water levels, and she is out in a matter of minutes.

A family affair

Colby constructed R & G Farm’s two greenhouses himself, using knowledge from constructing a chicken house to do so. When he was a junior in high school, his family bought a property with chicken houses, and he helped rebuild them. “A lot of the dealing with the fans, motors, plumbing and electrical … all those types of questions I was pretty familiar with because of what I had done back then,” he says.

R & G Farm prides itself on its diverse crop offering. The family sells several different varieties of greens, as the demand for certain products changes and fluctuates frequently in the local market.
Photo courtesy of R & G Farm

Colby’s parents’ chicken farm ended up putting him through college, and R & G Farm will afford Colby and Alexis the same opportunity for their son Riley, 18, and daughter Grace, 14. Both children helped with the construction process and still aid their parents in day-to-day operations.

At age 16, Riley played a major role in building the second greenhouse and expressed a keen interest in the process. “That was actually pretty cool because he was at the time trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life after high school, and I said, ‘Well, it’s kind of like engineering — you read stuff, you figure it out,’” Colby says. Now a senior in high school, Riley plans on pursuing a mechanical engineering degree and becoming a commercial pilot.

Colby is glad he was able to build the greenhouses with the help of Riley, as well as Grace, who helps out in various ways such as picking and packaging the lettuce. “Family interaction has been huge,” Colby says.

Customers and confidence

The Edwards transport their lettuce to customers locally in Dublin, 50 miles north to Macon and another 30 miles farther north to Atlanta, Alexis says. Customers in Macon include several restaurants and a Kroger grocery store, and in Atlanta, Georgia Tech University and a wholesale produce company.

R & G Farm attains most of its customers through word of mouth. At the same time, it is able to offer up credentials that show it is a safe and established operation. The farm participates in the Georgia Grown program and just earlier in 2017, became Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)-certified.

Photo courtesy of R & G Farm

In its nine years in existence, R & G Farm has dealt with its share of challenges. Among the most difficult parts of the job, Alexis says, is dealing with constant changes in the market. “One month everybody will want Bibb, and then the next month another type of lettuce will be the big hit,” she says. “Or you’ll have a customer that you’ve had for six months, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, they’ll just want to drop you and go somewhere else.”

The fact that the family built the business into what it is now, however, has been immensely satisfying, Alexis says. Because of R & G Farm, she says she feels more empowered and is able to confidently walk in public spaces and make her presence known.

“I remember the first time I walked into the back of a Kroger, I was the only female delivering something, and I was a nervous wreck,” she says. “But I have to say, they were in awe. They were like, ‘It’s the lettuce lady!’ That’s what they called me, that was my nickname. The beer guys were like, ‘The lettuce lady’s coming.’ Then it was fun. It’s pretty rewarding.”

Patrick is a freelance writer and regular contributor to sister publication Golf Course Industry and is based in Cleveland, Ohio.