By Stefanie Jackson – Shore Breeze Farms in Cheriton, owned and operated by fourth-generation farmer Steve Sturgis, was recently awarded a $15,000 Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development grant by Gov. Ralph Northam to expand the farm’s hydroponic greenhouse operations.
“It is exciting to see homegrown companies like Shore Breeze Farms harnessing new agriculture technologies to bring fresh, local vegetables to their communities,” Northam said in a July 2 press release.
Sturgis has been running the family business since his father died in 2002, but his interest in hydroponics dates back 20 years.
He’s always been interested in any farming technique – for example, growing tomatoes on trellises – that allows him to grow a “higher volume, higher quality,” Sturgis said.
He finally achieved his goal of growing crops hydroponically in 2019. His son, Kyle Sturgis, manages the two greenhouses.
They started with lettuce, and the first crop was harvested in January. Varieties of lettuce grown include green and red bibb, green and red oak leaf, and green leaf lettuce.
There are thousands of varieties of lettuce and “we’re always trying some new ones,” Sturgis said. Some grow better in warmer weather and others grow better in cooler seasons, he said.
He’s also experimenting with growing herbs like basil and cilantro.
The hydroponically grown leafy greens are sold to local restaurants, and shortly before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Shore Breeze Farms also had begun selling its lettuce to Northampton’s public schools.
“We were really pleased with that, because the kids were liking it, which made us feel good,” Sturgis said.
Oliver Bennett, chairman of Northampton’s board of supervisors, said, “We applaud Shore Breeze Farms and the Sturgis family’s commitment to agriculture on the Eastern Shore and their innovative approach to providing local produce to our students, our residents and our visitors year-round.”
The upcoming expansion will mean Shore Breeze Farms’ production of leafy greens will increase by 30%. There are also plans to build more greenhouses, add jobs, and grow more varieties of vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and eggplants.
Not every vegetable is well-suited for hydroponic growing, Sturgis noted. It wouldn’t make sense to grow sweet corn hydroponically for one ear of corn; a better choice is a crop that produces continually or in large amounts, he said.
One of the benefits of hydroponics is that crops are not limited to one season but can grow all year.
“So instead of just growing vegetables in the summertime, and then not having anything to do all winter, I’ve got something to keep me going,” Sturgis said.
Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring commended Shore Breeze Farms for “finding new ways to improve their operations to extend the growing season and meet customer-demand for local, Virginia-grown products.”
Hydroponics produce better quality vegetables because inside the greenhouse, crops are protected from storms, temperatures can be controlled, and the plants can be fed nutrients as needed.
The environment also benefits from the hydroponic farming method, which recycles water and uses very little water compared to overhead irrigation, Sturgis said.
Sen. Lynwood Lewis praised the Sturgis family for its “good stewardship” and called it a “great example of the proud tradition of agriculture that plays in our Shore economy and our way of life.”
Del. Robert Bloxom said, “It is great to see a local family with deep Eastern Shore roots continue to make their living on this peninsula through cutting edge approaches to our oldest industry.”
Sturgis pointed out that hydroponic farming isn’t a new concept; it has been used for centuries, since the days of Babylon (around 600 B.C.), but it has been “defined and redefined” over time as science advances.
“I’m not inventing the wheel here, it’s just another way of growing agricultural products on the Eastern Shore.”