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Laurens couple finding market for their hydroponic lettuce

DUBLIN - History and high-tech both have a place on the hill north of town, where U.S. 441 and Ga. 338 converge.

A few dozen steps behind Colby and Alexis Edwards’ 200-year-old home — a place of Civil War legend and even a few ghost stories — heads of lettuce grow by the hundreds in a climate-controlled greenhouse. Their roots feed from a flow of nutrient-rich water regulated by a computer.

The couple bought the old house when they moved to Dublin seven years ago. Last June, they finished the state-of-the-art greenhouse, banking on there being enough customers hungry for locally grown, hydroponic lettuce. Their venture is finding some success, but only after a rough go at the start.

A tornado and proposed job transfer almost stopped the project in mid-construction.

“It’s been a ride,” Colby Edwards said.

The greenhouse can grow 3,100 heads of lettuce at once. A head takes about six weeks to reach maturity. Seeds are sprouted in trays of rock wool – blocks of man-made mineral fibers — then transferred to the nursery section at the rear of the greenhouse. Two weeks later, they’re transplanted to the white trays that carry the water and serve as their beds.

A computer regulates the proper balance of nutrients and the pH balance of the water, which runs into a 500-gallon underground tank before being fed into the growing trays. The underground tank helps keep the water cool.

The computer monitors the water 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also helps regulate the temperature and humidity in the greenhouse, with relay switches to increase air flow and circulation and to cover the entire structure with a “shade cloth” to cool things down.

The greenhouse pretty much runs itself, though Colby Edwards, an AT&T supervisor, was quick to note that “you can have the best computer in the world, but it’s only as good as the information you put into it.”

The system allowed the couple to take a five-day cruise. When a problem came up at the greenhouse, they were alerted by the computer and phoned someone to take care of it.

“We were on the cruise ship,” said Edwards, “and, thank God, they had AT&T service.”

‘GUINEA PIG’ GREENHOUSE

Aside from the planting, transplanting and harvesting, there’s not a lot of manual labor involved.

“Some days, I’m out here five minutes,” said Alexis Edwards, a full-time homemaker before taking on many of the harvesting and delivery chores. “Some days it’s eight hours.”

There was, however, plenty of manual labor — and a few trials — involved in putting the greenhouse together.

The materials came as a kit, “sort of like a big Christmas gift,” Colby Edwards said.

Edwards was scrambling to build a barn to house the materials when they were delivered.

“The day they came, I put on the last piece of tin. When I say God’s hand was in this, I’m not just using a phrase.”

Construction was complicated by less-than-perfect instructions.

“This was like the guinea pig. A lot of it was a new design,” Alexis said.

“A lot of the instructions were wrong. We sort of built the thing ourselves,” Colby said. “I was killing myself out here.”

A consultant from the manufacturer offered to fly down to help — for $500 a day, plus expenses.

“We had every penny we had tied up in this,” said Colby. who was working on the demanding task of installing two big fans when he got a call from his employers telling him he was being transferred to Columbus.

“My brother was helping me, and I told him, ‘They just called and I’ve got to move.’ He said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I sat there a moment and said, ‘God told us to build this greenhouse. Let’s go hang the fans.’ ’’

Two weeks later, he was told the transfer was off.

The couple dodged disaster during last year’s Mother’s Day storms, which spawned a tornado that killed two people just two miles up U.S. 441.

Winds downed a few trees in their yard and caused some damage to the greenhouse, but it could have been much worse had the structure already been covered.

“These trays were wrapped around those poles,” Colby Edwards said. “Luckily, they just bent right out.”

Despite the obstacles and, sometimes, guesswork in getting the greenhouse together, it was up and running in June. The couple sold the first crop to a buyer at the Atlanta Farmers Market. They later hosted a three-day workshop for the manufacturer that drew customers from Arizona, New York and the islands of Trinidad and Barbados.

“They told us we were doing better than most,” Colby Edwards said.

LETTUCE AND LEGENDS

The Edwardses grow two types of lettuce — Bibb and a spring mix — that are sold in four midstate Kroger grocery stores under the name “Living Fresh R&G Farm.” The lettuce is also served in a handful of area restaurants, such as Natalia’s, Fountain of Juice, The Back Burner and Joe’s Ravioli in Macon and Blackbird Coffee in Dublin.

“It’s the best lettuce ever,” said Fountain of Juice owner Natasha Phillips, who serves the organic greens in the restaurant’s salads.

The lettuce almost “sells itself,” Colby Edwards said.

“You open the box and say, ‘Is this something you’re interested in?’ and they buy it. You’ve got to change people’s habits. The easiest way is taking it to them and letting them fall in love with it.

“Our selling points,” he said, “are its freshness, and it’s pesticide-free and grown locally.”

The lettuce also passes a crucial taste test — the couple’s 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter like it.

“Our kids will walk by and grab a leaf of lettuce and eat it,” said Colby Edwards. “And they don’t eat vegetables.”

Added his wife, “If they eat it, you know it must be good.”

The couple this week finished growing its first crop of Romaine lettuce, and they also are experimenting with basil.

The greenhouse, which uses some of the latest hydroponic technology, stands in stark contrast to the family’s home. Some believe it is the oldest in Laurens County.

The house was built in the early 1800s — some accounts say as early as 1807 — by slaves using hand-hewn lumber.

The couple bought it after moving here and have continued efforts by previous owners to keep the old-timey theme. They’ve even got several antique telephones.

Legend has it that during the War Between the States, a wounded Confederate soldier fled Yankee troops in Irwinton, crawled up the home’s outside stairway and bled a large puddle on the floor, which is now enclosed.

Colby Edwards said people still ask to see the bloodstain. Though the floor has been finished, he believes a dark area on the hardwood is the place where the soldier collapsed.

More lore about the home is fueled by records of an 1855 prenuptial agreement by a widowed former owner, who lists slaves by name and age. She also mentions a woman as “our friendly ghost.”

Edwards admits to occasionally having seen some strange goings-on.

“That house,” he said, “is another story.”

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