- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mary Ellen Taylor’s new life’s work is rooted in the common leafy greens often demoted to decorating appetizer plates or assigned second fiddle on a BLT.

The former retail consultant is managing partner of Endless Summer Harvest, a 7-acre hydroponic lettuce farm in Purcellville, Va. Endless Summer harvests and sells about 2,000 heads of lettuce per week.

“We have 25 varieties,” she says, rattling off the differences between butterhead, arugula, lola rossa, watercress and the herbs, which include basil and cilantro.

Mrs. Taylor got into the farming business five years ago when she and her husband bought the farm in Purcellville. They intended to hire others to manage the farm while they kept their day jobs.

The plan changed when her retail consulting job was eliminated in a buyout. She started managing the farm while looking for a new job, but decided she liked growing lettuce.

“I never saw this [career] coming,” she says as she sets up her booth at the Penn Quarter FreshFarm farmers market. “But I’m happy. I see me doing this for a long time.”

While Mrs. Taylor shares a passion for the product with other farmers, Endless Summer isn’t really a typical Old McDonald’s Farm.

At Endless Summer, lettuce grows in small pods of water on rows and rows of tables in two greenhouses that electronically sense when to pull giant shades over the crop. The lettuce’s supply of nutrients and water temperature is also controlled by computers.

The water method, called hydroponic farming, is what Mrs. Taylor calls “beyond organic.” Since the lettuce doesn’t grow in soil, it avoids any kinds of pesticides or runoff found in other products.

She spends her days managing the business side of the farm. One professional grower, Kirk Noll, and a team of 22 employees — most working part time — do the farming.

Mrs. Taylor, 48, says she gets some flak from traditional farmers who don’t approve of her high-tech way of growing.

Some “think what we’re doing is against God,” she says, half-joking.

But it has some nutritional advantages.

Endless Summer recently signed a contract with Wegmans Food Markets to supply the store with the first lettuce fortified with calcium, Mrs. Taylor says. The calcium is added to the water supply.

The lettuce is expected to be in stores late this summer for about $5, or 50 cents more than a regular head of butterhead lettuce from the farm.

On this day, Mrs. Taylor is carting her lettuce — which is sometimes accompanied by cucumbers, tomatoes and green peppers — to the Penn Quarter FreshFarm farmers market.

Endless Summer sells produce at 10 farmers markets in the District and Northern Virginia every week during the summer. The farm sells at five markets during the winter.

She says more people are taking interest in locally grown goods, which can be pricey.

“If they really want to buy local, they have to pay more,” she says, pointing out that the cheapest lettuce is 99 cents, while her best varieties inch toward $11.

Despite the price, she’s acquired plenty of repeat customers, who generate about 60 percent of her weekly sales, she says as she sorts the different varieties of lettuce.

Endless Summer also sells to restaurants, including 701, Poste Moderne Brasserie, the Bread & Chocolate chain and Cowgirl Creamery cheese shop.

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