Ogden restaurateur sees green — lettuce, cost savings — in container farm
OGDEN — You don’t need a big, open field to farm — sometimes a 10-foot by 40-foot container does just fine.
Steve Ballard, owner and operator of Sonora Grill in Ogden, has launched a unique operation, Ogden Produce Co., to help generate some of the greens his restaurant needs. He grows the lettuce Sonora Grill uses in a refrigerated container that sits on the grounds of the Oasis Community Garden in the heart of Ogden, reducing the need to go through suppliers, trimming expenses (though there are start-up costs to consider) and conserving water.
“It is a booming field,” he said. “It’s the future of farming.”
He launched Ogden Produce Co. last December — a container farming operation, in industry parlance — and after experimenting with a number of products, including kale and arugula, settled on four types of lettuce: red and green butter lettuce and red and green crisp lettuce. The output is enough to supply Sonora Grill — Ballard has created two new salad offerings using the greens — and he plans to start selling the excess lettuce he doesn’t use to the public at Thai Curry Kitchen, another Ogden restaurant he owns.
“There’s definitely a quality difference. The taste is something,” Ballard said, alluding to the benefits of the container-grown greens.
Granted, the operation is small. The container measures 1o-feet by 40-feet, 400 square feet in all. But production, which takes seven to eight weeks from seed to harvest, equals what would come from a 1-acre plot of traditionally farmed land.
Beyond that, the soil-free, hydroponic operation uses far less water than a traditional farm since the water can be recirculated. Moreover, production can take place year-round, while growing locally reduces the need to use fossil fuels to transport goods from far-away farms.
The lettuce Sonora Grill uses doesn’t have to take a long ride in the back of a truck to get to Ogden, “so our fresh greens truly are fresh!” Lucy Ballard, Steve Ballard’s daughter and the co-owner and co-founder of the operation, said in an email.
The Ogden Produce Co. container was manufactured by Freight Farms, which makes them already equipped with the lighting, temperature controls and technology needed to garden.
“It’s all about control,” Steve Ballard said. That is, by controlling the lighting, water output, temperature and other conditions inside the container, Ballard can virtually assure regular output.
“I would say gardening is like an art. Hydroponics is a little more like science,” he said.
Inside the container, the lettuce is grown on the sides of large panels that run most of the length of the structure. Lighting is controlled to provide the plants with the red and blue light that is best for growing.
Ballard contrasts his operation with the large lettuce-producing farms on “mammoth fields” in California. “It’s just not a smart way to use land,” he said.
For now, he produces enough for Sonora Grill plus a bit more that he plans to market at Thai Curry Kitchen. But he has grander ambitions — supplying produce to others. “I hope to become a regional lettuce provider,” he said.
With the container sitting in the middle of the Oasis Community Garden, he also hopes to post signage about the operation to better educate the public about the alternative farming method. Oasis Community Garden, located at 2445 Monroe Blvd. and operated by the Junior League of Ogden, provides space for public gardening.
For now, Ballard’s container is powered via the grid, but he eventually plans to place solar panels atop the structure to make it self-sustaining.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify Lucy Ballard’s role with Ogden Produce Co.