Coastal Plains Produce is located in Grifton, NC, a small town outside of Greenville, NC—serious farm country. I drove down to see Jedd Koehn’s operation and found his greenhouse buried deep in the country down a dirt road, off a dirt road. The greenhouse appeared amongst the pine trees and sandy soil with Jedd and his son Tanner waiting outside to wave me down. Stepping through the door of the greenhouse, I did not expect what I was about to walk into. I had seen hydroponic lettuce in its final stage, beautiful and crisp in the clamshells that Koehn uses to transport them, but I was not able to fully understand what hydroponic meant until I saw the whole operation. A hydroponic growing system means that it is grown entirely in water. The seeds are started in seed trays and then transplanted into a floating tray and placed in a pool of water—otherwise known as a deep water system. Nutrients are added every few weeks and the water is constantly aerated to ensure plant health and stimulate growth. Koehn’s greenhouse is incredible: it is the size of three greenhouses, it is completely full of greens in all different stages and equipped with grow lights, fans, heaters, a water aerator, etc. He grows over 20 different varieties of lettuce and greens including watercress, arugula, braising greens, and many different kinds of lettuce. He just started growing microgreens at the request of a local chef and is slowly starting to expand to other kinds of greens. This is Koehn’s third year as Coastal Plains Produce but he has been around farming his whole life.
Koehn grew up on a 1200-acre organic farm in Kansas that was started by his grandfather. He worked in the fields as a kid and became accustomed to the lifestyle. His grandfather also started a grain mill called Heartland Mills. Before delving into hydroponics, Koehn and a friend started an aquaponics operation, which includes fish in the process. The idea of aquaponics is that the fish provide the nutrients needed for the lettuce to grow, creating a system with very few additives. They built their aquaponics system completely by themselves using an old greenhouse but ran into a lot of problems with scale—their system was too small to make enough money to keep it going. With an aquaponics system they found it difficult to regulate bacteria; Koehn now uses hydrogen peroxide in the water sometimes to kill any bacteria but could not have done so with an aquaponics system. Taking everything he learned from this operation and applying it to his own space, he started Coastal Plains Produce in November of 2013.
He now works with local restaurants and distributors, and sells at farmers markets from Grifton to Durham and is continuing to learn and perfect his system. He has grow lights throughout the greenhouse that he uses for the seedlings he starts in trays and has to use on all the lettuce during the winter when there is not enough sunlight. Throughout the summer he uses a shade cloth to keep the temperature down and to keep the sun from burning the lettuce. Lettuce only needs about 10 hours of sunlight and cannot grow in very hot or very cold conditions, and he has found a way to accommodate to these restrictions and can now grow lettuce year-round. Koehn does all of this work with just three part time workers and sells about 1,000 pounds of produce a week. I asked him what his favorite part of farming is and he responded by saying: “Walking into a restaurant and seeing my lettuce on a table. Knowing that we beat the bugs and the weather.” For him, farming is extremely satisfying work and the lifestyle is wonderful; he can go home for lunch and he brings his son to work with him most days. It is easy to see how much he enjoys his work by the way he talks about and handles his lettuce and his greenhouse. In a few years Tanner will be working alongside his father and learning the trade.
Their favorite way to eat their lettuce (and they eat a lot of lettuce, as you can imagine) is to just have a simple garden salad with ranch dressing. The lettuce is so flavorful that it doesn’t need much–it cannot be compared to iceberg lettuce or any lettuce you might find in a regular grocery store. This lettuce is crisp, fresh, and full of flavor, and its shelf life is twice as long with the root ball still attached! Not only can you find Coastal Plain’s Produce through Papa Spud’s and many local farmers markets, you can visit some gourmet restaurants in Eastern North Carolina such as The Chef and the Farmer and The Boiler Room Oyster Bar both in Kinston, NC. So treat yourself with some of the best lettuce you’ll have the pleasure of tasting and keep in mind the farmer whose days are spent with your salad.