On a recent sunny winter day in North Jacksonville, Heather Bacon stands inside her family’s hydroponic greenhouse next to a waist-high row of 480 bright green, butterhead lettuces. All of the heads, perched atop a long PVC pipe, look like over-sized roses in full bloom, with intricate veins running through the delicately hardy folds of foliage.
With her nine-month-old son, Owen, inch-worming his way around her feet, she carefully pulls a butterhead from its spot along the pipe and holds it up.
“That’s the root,” she says, smiling proudly, running her hands down the long wet strands hanging from the bottom of the plant.
For more than three years, Heather and her husband, Freddie, along with Freddie’s parents, Fred and Sharon, have become rooted in the First Coast’s slow food movement, through their farming business, Bacon Select. What started out six years ago as a farm-stand hobby for Fred Sr. has evolved into a mid-sized agricultural operation that has earned Bacon Select a seat at the table with some of the region’s best chefs.
Each week, the family harvests and delivers thousands of units of arugula, watercress, kale, red oak and butterhead lettuces to establishments like Black Sheep, Orsay, M Shack and The Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island. From the time a seedling soaks up its first nutrient-rich water, to the moment a bunch of kale changes hands at the Riverside Arts Market, where Fred Sr. still sells, or arrives at the kitchen door of an upscale eatery, the Bacons have meticulously cared for each plant, resulting in beautiful, flavorful, colorful, all-natural and long-lasting vegetables.
Waylon Rivers, executive chef of Black Sheep, knows a good salad when he tastes it, and he brought Bacon Select’s produce to his restaurant when he took over the kitchen in 2012.
“It’s the best lettuce we could get,” Rivers says. “And it’s something to help preserve our city and show people some of the good stuff our community is doing. You can just tell the flavors are much more profound, not monochromatic, bland and flavorless.”
Back at the greenhouses, Freddie and his family work hard to cultivate quality. Wearing a blue Nike t-shirt and jeans, Freddie, 32, checks the connection points on the lines that carry specially formulated plant-feeding water through an organized system of pipes drilled with holes. Hydroponic farms use only water mixed with nutrients to grow plants. The plants grow nestled in one-and-a-half-inch holes, with foliage blossoming on top and roots hanging into the pipe where the water flows.
The Bacon’s four plastic-covered domes, which house their crops, hum with the noise of circulation fans and brim with the smell of fresh, crisp greens. Rows of salad leaves spring from atop white cylinders that run the width of each building. Underground tubes circulate water from large holding tanks, inside each greenhouse, to the plants and then back to the tanks, where the water is treated and reused.
According to Freddie, hydroponic methods require only about a tenth of the volume of water used by conventional dirt farmers. With more predictability than traditional farmers, hydroponic growers “bend the weather,” by controlling climate and humidity.
“We never have a drought,” Heather says smiling.
Natural disasters aside, water-based agriculture isn’t without its challenges. Each year brings a new problem, from microscopic insects to fungus and algae. Freddie credits much of their problem-solving success to a multicounty extension agent from the University of Florida. This free agricultural expert visits the farm, gives professional advice and informs them of relevant classes.
Before learning the science behind producing gourmet greens, Freddie worked eight years as an options trader. But a fatal hit to his trading business when the financial markets crashed in 2008 motivated him to change careers.
“We’re not gentlemen farmers who made their millions and put it in to the farm,” he says. “We lost everything. When it happened, I wasn’t so happy. But I’m so glad it happened now.”
Today, the four family members are rolling in the greens, commercially growing their crops inside 10,000 square feet of greenhouse space behind the classic one-story brick home where Freddie grew up.
With a full schedule of tending, harvesting, selling and delivering, the Bacons have little energy left for expanding their already wide reach and varied offerings. Freddie and Heather, however, do hope to grow their family and add a few more little Bacons to the payroll.
“He’s a future farmer of America,” Freddie says, smiling and bouncing Owen in his arms.