For months now, Iowans have bundled up in layers of clothing and trudged through the snow, longing for a taste of summer.
But the salad days of summer never end at the Beaver Creek Produce greenhouse in Berkley, just a few miles north of Perry in central Iowa.
Inside the greenhouse grows row upon row of salad greens, herbs and beefsteak tomatoes.
“It’s just amazing. Even on a cold winter day, if the sun is out at all, it just adds so much natural heat to the greenhouse,” says Mike Phelan, a Dallas County Farm Bureau member and co-owner of Beaver Creek Produce.
Brothers Mike and Tim Phelan, along with their families, opened the greenhouse in April 2014. Since then, the family has quickly found a market hungry for their Iowa-grown lettuce and produce.
Currently, about 26 Hy-Vee stores in central Iowa offer Beaver Creek Produce lettuce and herbs, with the distinctive “Grown in Iowa” sticker on the packaging — a sticker that Mike Phelan designed himself.
“We wanted to stand out from the competition,” Phelan says. “I’ve had numerous produce managers tell me that people seek out Iowa-grown items. They have a very loyal following.”
In addition to managing the greenhouse, the Phelan family grows corn and soybeans in the summer months. Yet they were looking for an alternative crop to grow on their Century Farm to diversify their income.
Phelan says hydroponic greenhouse production was appealing, in part, because his family could harvest a crop year round.
Hydroponic greenhouses grow tomatoes, lettuce and other produce without soil. Instead, the plants are fed a steady trickle of nutrients through water that washes over their roots.
The lettuce growing in the Beaver Creek Produce greenhouse looks like it’s planted in seamless gutters, with small flexible tubes pumping nutrient-rich water to the leafy greens.
When growing lettuce and tomatoes in the middle of an Iowa winter, keeping the greenhouse at the right temperature is vital, Phelan says.
The 12,600-foot-square greenhouse features in-floor heat that is set to 55 degrees, plus overhead propane heaters to provide supplemental heat when the outside temperatures drop below freezing.
Yet the greenhouse heats up fast on sunny days, even in January. A weather station at the top of the greenhouse monitors the temperature inside and outside.
When the greenhouse starts to overheat, the climate-control system automatically turns on the fans and rolls out a sunshade above the plants.
The hydroponic system is also automated, delivering the proper amount of nutrients to the plants exactly when they need it to optimize growth.
But there’s still a lot of hands-on work required to keep the greenhouse running smoothly. Phelan compares their greenhouse operation to a dairy farm, where you have to work seven days a week because the cows (or in this case, the plants) don’t take a vacation.
In order to grow lettuce on a continuous cycle, the Phelan family and their greenhouse staff, including two full-time and one part-time employee, plants seeds twice a week and harvests nearly every day.
The lettuce, herbs and produce are packaged on site. Phelan delivers the produce personally to the Hy-Vee stores in a climate-controlled van, with license plates that read, “LETTUCE.”
Phelan says he enjoys meeting the Hy-Vee produce managers and getting their feedback on what customers want. Last summer, Phelan decided to plant mint, just because he thought it looked neat in a seed catalog.
When he told the produce managers about the mint, they all wanted it in their stores. Why? Because mint is a key ingredient in mojitos, a Cuban cocktail that’s all the rage among foodies. “We could hardly keep up (with demand) after that,” Phelan says.
Beaver Creek Produce’s signature lettuce variety is butterhead, a dark-green lettuce that looks like a rosebud in greens.
The butterhead lettuce is harvested and packaged with the roots still attached, so it lasts longer in the store and in customers’ fridges.
“The butterhead has been interesting. Especially in Iowa and the Midwest, everybody grew up on iceberg (lettuce), so it’s been a real experience educating everybody what it is and getting them to try it once,” Phelan says.
“Once they do, we have a lot of repeat business. I’ve got stores actually saying that now they’ve got customers coming in and asking for it, which is neat, because we’ve seen it take off from nothing. There was really nothing comparable in their market before that.”
The lettuce is sold in clamshell packaging instead of in bags and features a bright yellow-and-blue Beaver Creek Produce label. The farm is named after Beaver Creek, which runs through the property, and the labels list a Berkley, Iowa, address.
Berkley is actually an unincorporated town, and the farm sits in Perry’s zip code, Phelan notes.
“We had a big debate when we got started (above the label), and I think I was the only one who said Berkley,” he recalls. “Everybody said, well, nobody knows where Berkley is. And I said, that’s just it. They will be curious, and they will find out.”
And if you ever happen to be driving through Berkley, feel free to stop by and ask for a greenhouse tour, Phelan says. They plan to offer on-farm sales of their lettuce, herbs and tomatoes this summer.