Plants grow hydroponically at Endless Summer Harvest farm in Loudoun County. At a D.C.-area farmers market, owner Mary Ellen Taylor can get $5 per head of lettuce. That's not a price the Loudoun school district can afford.
Clear, tepid water streams out from underneath rows and rows of plastic piping, perky green lettuce leaves and sprouts peeking out through hundreds of holes in the pipes. That water is the future of farming, at least according to Endless Summer Harvest owner and operator Mary Ellen Taylor, who is standing amid the rows in her hydroponic greenhouse.
Decades ago, farms in Loudoun County fed the entire Washington region, but today, farmers and county leaders are struggling just to get more local food into public school cafeterias.
Taylor is one of a new generation of farmers in Loudoun. She doesn't sell her produce to the school system right now, but she thinks the case could be made for it.
Farmers market patrons will pay a premium
Endless Summer Harvest is a hydroponic lettuce farm in Purcellville, Va. Hydroponic farms grow crops with just water -- no soil. It avoids the need for soil pesticides, meaning the lettuce comes out more clean and nutritious, she says. It also means it's more expensive.
Taylor sells her specialty lettuce to picky chefs at local restaurants, to high-end grocers, and at farmers markets across the Washington region. Her clientele comes from some of the most affluent communities in the nation, and she can charge a pretty penny -- much more than she could charge if she starts selling to Loudoun County public schools.
At farmers' markets in Penn Quarter in D.C., or the Saturday market in Falls Church, she gets get $5 for a head of lettuce. "For the school system, I'll bet they'll pay about a $1.75," she says.
For schools, obstacles to buying local produce
The Loudoun County School District buys produce from farms in Charlottesville, Va., as well as some areas in West Virginia, and Maryland -- but the district would like to see that money stay closer to home, says Jeff Platenberg, the assistant superintendent in charge of food services for the district.
Currently, the produce comes from areas close enough to qualify for federal grants supporting local food in school cafeterias, but mostly from outside the county.
"Locally grown is defined as within 120 mile radius," Platenberg says. "We're trying to get what is here in Loudoun County, and that has presented an extreme challenge."
Scale becomes problem for small farms
Another challenge simply comes down to scale. Loudoun agriculture isn't what it once was. While the county has more than 1,400 farms, few are big enough to provide beef, eggs, or produce in quantities the school district needs. That's why it's unrealistic to think big right away, says Kellie Boles, who works for the county's rural economic development program.
"What you're going to see is maybe 2 percent of produce in local schools in the next 5 to 10 years could be from Loudoun County," she says.
Eventually, Taylor says, even the decreased profits will cease to be a roadblock if farmers realize that they'll be helping to educate more children about the importance of local agriculture and preserving local farms. In addition, selling to the school district also means something else.
"It would be a guaranteed client," she says, and that's just what small farmers need to survive.