“Lettuce” Tell You About Central City Urban Farm
Central City Urban Farm
by Communications Specialist Laura Jean McCurdy
March 29, 2021
Look out plain iceberg, Central City Urban Farm's variety of lettuces are crisp, fresh and delicious. What makes them better than most? Nothing beats the quality of a product grown right here in Alabama!
Tucked away in an industrial park in Birmingham, you may not believe there is a fully functioning hydroponic lettuce farm. Behind the outer gray walls, rows of fresh green lettuce, kale, swiss chard, spinach, basil, chives, cilantro and more color the once-dull warehouse.
Mitch Hungerpiller always enjoyed farming and gardening but didn’t think it would become his livelihood. In April 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his sons quarantined in Dallas County on their family farm. Like many others during that time, Mitch took on a quarantine project. He, his sons, and family friends resurrected a few abandoned outdoor greenhouses and planted a garden. Through this project, his passion for farming was re-energized.
It seemed that fate was also on Mitch’s side. Upon returning to Birmingham a few months later, a piece of property downtown became available for purchase. There, he setup a trial hydroponic indoor greenhouse to test grow lettuces and herbs.
Hydroponics is the process of growing plants under regulated lights, temperature and water. Many hydroponic farmers use a liquid nutrient solution instead of field dirt.
Mitch and his sons built the experimental hydroponic system out of PVC pipes and wooden frames by hand. They drilled a row of holes two inches apart in each pipe, which allows the team to fit a soil plug and plant inside the pipe snugly. This hydroponic system uses a topsoil and pulverized coconut husk mix that retains water, which is ideal to reduce water usage. Water and nutrients are fed to the plants directly through the main pipe, and the soil and root system absorb the moisture and nutrients needed. Hung along the wooden frames are LED lights, which provide perfect sun-like conditions tested and controlled by Mitch for optimum growth.
After a growing season and taste test, the trial was deemed successful. Mitch conjured up a business plan and slowly started expanding over the winter months. He brought in his family to help assemble more hydroponic systems.
Once the infrastructure was in place, the Central City team began planting a variety of lettuces and herbs for consumers. Mitch, his sister-in-law Catherine, and his sons use tweezers to individually place tiny seeds an inch deep into the soil mixture. The seeds then spend a few days in a cool, dark room to prepare for germination. The planted seeds then spend time in a in a semi-lit “grow room” until the seeds sprout, and the plants are hardy enough to grow in the hydroponic pipe system. Mitch and his family transfer the soil plugs and seedlings into the pipes by hand and watch them grow.
Even though Central City Urban Farm has only been in operation for a short while, the business is growing rapidly -- just like their plants."The farm production has increased over 500% in 90 days,” said Mitch. “Our production goal is to add vegetables such as squash, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and beans by May 1, 2021 and produce over 1,000 pounds of lettuce monthly by July 1, 2021."
However, an increase in demand and production comes with challenges. Since the hydroponic infrastructure is constructed by Mitch and his sons, the building process is moving slower than anticipated. Working tirelessly, Mitch and his sons believe they can grow their hydroponic capacity to meet consumer demand.
Mitch is proud of his farm and what it has become. Local chefs in the Birmingham area are serving up Central City Urban Farms greens on their menus, and say the taste and quality is far superior to their typical food service orders. Shoppers at Birmingham area Piggly Wiggly stores are also finding Central City Urban Farms greens on their grocery store shelves.
Mitch and the Central City Urban Farm team are proud members of Sweet Grown Alabama.
“Having Sweet Grown Alabama support us brings credibility to Central City Urban Farm. We love the fact that an association takes the time to perform due diligence on member farmers and offer resources to help us,” said Mitch. “I am very happy to be associated with Sweet Grown Alabama and the strong brand it brings us.”
The future of Central City Urban Farm is as bright as their LED lighting system!
“We want to stay focused on locally grown farm fresh products,” said Mitch. “We will be rolling out our e-commerce sites to the public soon so that daily pickups and deliveries are available.”
Mitch and the team welcome guests to visit the hydroponic farm and try their products. To learn more about Central City Urban Farm, visit CentralCityUrbanFarm.com.