On Wednesday, August 16, Matt Ludwig, French Price, and I traveled through the hills and rills of Churchville, Virginia, to meet Mike Calhoun of Stover Shop Greenhouses. Stover Shop is a family hydroponic lettuce operation with four lettuce cultivars and a variety of product options and distribution channels. They do everything from bagged lettuces targeted at institutions to plastic clamshells in grocery stores in the western part of the state to lettuces served in restaurants across Virginia.
Like many farmers, this isn’t Mike’s first career. He spent years in the construction business, but when the greenhouse a couple miles from his house went up for sale, he and his family decided to get into the lettuce business. Mike makes no secret of the fact that it’s a tough business to get into and a tough business to stay in. Still, the Calhouns stick around. Mike’s wife and two of his sons work at Stover Shop with him, and he hopes to have room to bring more of his family on if they’re interested. Stover Shop also employs folks from around the Churchville area; some of those folks help with harvest when things get busy, and some work at Stover Shop year-round.
The Stover Shop team prides themselves on being able to provide the best product possible by controlling as much of the product chain as possible, which is why they decided to grow their lettuces in a greenhouse. The greenhouse can control temperature, light intensity, and humidity using a digital control panel. Stover Shop also uses a fertigation system, meaning that their irrigation water contains tightly controlled amounts of fertilizer. According to Mike, this allows them to change the flavor of their lettuce simply by changing the fertilizer mix. To make sure the product stays fresh, they also do their own packaging in-house and handle some of their own delivery.
This high level of control over the product is apparently a necessity when growing lettuce. Mike made it clear that even in a greenhouse, lettuce is very difficult to grow at certain times of the year. Summer is difficult because the lettuce has tendency to bolt and are stemmy, while the winter grow is expensive to heat. Despite the modern, controlled environment Stover Shop maintains, they still have seasonal cost, quality, and supply issues to consider.
In addition to their control over their product, Mike credits their involvement with state agencies, state specialists, and other ag organizations as giving them the tools to succeed. Attending a Virginia Cooperative Extension networking event helped Stover Shop get some of their first clients, and Mike has tried to stay abreast of their marketing events ever since. He sees good marketing as essential to Stover Shop’s survival and expansion. Another big step for them was the opportunity to work with Amber Vallotton, Virginia’s Produce Safety Specialist, to get USDA GAP certification. In Mike’s experience, GAP certification is a necessity to work with large buyers, distributors, and institutions. If you don’t have it, you can’t play with the big boys. Although GAP certification intimidates a lot of people, Mike says they find it very manageable at Stover Shop, and it gets easier the longer you do it. The first audit is a little scary, but the more GAP becomes part of your routine, the less you have to worry about it. In fact, “I bet my son doesn’t spend an hour a week doing his GAP manuals. He doesn’t have to.” For more about Stover Shop’s GAP experience, see this video.
Visiting Stover Shop was a great chance to see the intersection of old-school customer service and high-tech agriculture. Not only that, our visit highlighted the science and attentiveness that go into a single leaf of lettuce. To learn more, be sure to catch the full interview with Joe on the Virginia Market Ready YouTube Channel, visit their website, or look for their products in a grocery store, restaurant, or school near you. Thanks again to Mike for sharing his story and wisdom with us.
Ben Garber (Virginia Tech AG Econ ‘19)
September 1, 2017