Growing Lettuce for Market Gardeners: Why Grow Lettuce

Episode Summary

The Ray Tyler Lettuce Series is a new podcast mini-series hosted by Diego Footer and farmer Ray Tyler to take a deep dive into the technicalities of growing lettuce—from why lettuce is a farm staple to how to master growing the crop consistently to how to effectively market lettuce to maximize profits.

In this episode of The Lettuce Series, Diego introduces farmer Ray Tyler, and they talk about how lettuce is the backbone of Rosecreek Farms. They also talk about Ray’s farming context, how big their farm is, how much lettuce they’re growing, and how much profit their farm is making off lettuce.  


This Episode’s Guest: Ray Tyler

Ray Tyler is the farmer and owner of Rosecreek Farms, a financially successful one-acre market garden nestled in Tennessee. Ray Tyler is also an educator who has helped many farms become more profitable through his coaching services. He also offers his services in the form of his three courses: The Living Farm Course, Caterpillar Tunnel Success, and of course, his Lettuce Masterclass.


Relevant Links

            The Farmer’s Guide To Growing Organic Lettuce by Ray Tyler

            Ray Tyler’s Lettuce Masterclass


In this episode of The Lettuce Series

  • Diego introduces the episode series on growing lettuce (00:08)
  • Ray Tyler and Rosecreek Farms (02:13)
  • How lettuce played a role in the evolution of Rosecreek Farms (03:50)
  • What makes lettuce a good fit for market farms (04:49)
  • The different possibilities with growing lettuce on a small farm (07:24)
  • Can most small market farms survive without salad mix? (10:20)
  • How much of the $500,000 gross profit is made up of lettuce (13:25)
  • How much of a $600,000 profit goes to the farmer (16:18)
    • A consistent 75% profit margin on lettuce (17:08)
  • The amount of lettuce that comes off the farm (19:08)
  • How much Ray Tyler sells their lettuce for (20:41)
  • How much lettuce can two people reasonably grow at peak season? (21:14)
  • Ray Tyler’s goal in writing his book, The Farmer’s Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce (23:23)
  • What can you get out of Ray Tyler’s lettuce-growing masterclass? (25:56)


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Ray Tyler Lettuce Series - Episode 1 - Why Grow Lettuce

[00:00:00] Diego Footer: Welcome to Farm Small Farm Smart. I'm your host, Diego, DIEGO. Today, I'm proud to kick off one of the most in-depth collection of episodes that I have ever done. Over the next 10 weeks, you'll be taken on a deep dive into growing organic lettuce successfully, consistently, and profitably. I will be your guide on that journey, but I won't be doing it alone.

[00:00:32] Your expert will be Farmer Ray Tyler from Rose Creek Farms in Selmer, Tennessee. Ray's been farming for over 10 years and growing lettuce since the beginning, but not always successfully. Initially, Ray struggled with the crop, but seeing its cash flow potential for his small farm, he put in the time to master it, and he's now producing over 400 pounds a week in the slow season and over a thousand in the summer.

[00:01:02] Lettuce has been a huge financial driver to push Ray's farm up to several hundred thousand dollars in revenue each year. To help other market gardeners maximize their farm's potential, Ray wrote the book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce.

[00:01:18] For the next 10 episodes, we'll go through that book in depth section by section. There's an immense amount of info in this series. I hope it helps bring thousands of dollars in revenue to your farm. To get a copy of Ray's book, which is essentially the textbook for this series, you can use the link below.

[00:01:41] If you're more of a visual learner, you can sign up for Ray�s Lettuce Master using the link below. And be sure to check out the episode description for any tools and equipment referenced in this series. Ten episodes entirely on lettuce. It's the lettuce series presented by Farm Small Farm Smart. Are you ready?

[00:02:07] Without further ado, here it is.

[00:02:13] Ray Tyler: Diego. It is great to be here with you again. As everyone knows, my name is Ray Tyler and me and my wife Ashley, we started our farm back in 2009 when we first started growing. Now we have a one-acre micro farm that is under 100% covered with cat tunnels, high tunnels, and we grow, sell, produce, 52 weeks a year.

[00:02:41] Currently, primarily to Farmer's Market. We have an on-farm store and an online store using the Shopify platform. We gross over $500,000 a year, and I have currently, we have between three to four full-time employees, two of them being in management, overseeing certain aspects of the farm. And I'm really focused on consistent production, really focused on that and have really built my farm on making sure we have systems in place that allow for consistent production, consistent sales, and consistent cash flow.

[00:03:29] And that has really helped us over the years build up a farm that is really now working for us. My wife is now no longer working the farm full-time stay-at-home mom, which has been a really big step for us. And so building the farm to work for us has been a massive part on our success.

[00:03:50] Diego Footer: With this series focusing on lettuce, how has Lettuce played a role in your farm's evolution and getting you to where it is today?

[00:03:59] Ray Tyler: Oh, it's been massive. So in 2010, when I first started selling, that was one of the first crops that I recognized early on that I felt was gonna be a relatively easy crop to grow. It's a very popular crop. It's quick-growing. It's easy to grow, relatively in certain times of the year and sell. And so that first spring in 2010, we did very well just selling lettuce.

[00:04:28] We had other crops as well, but it was very clear to me early on that this was gonna be the one item that if I could figure out consistent production through the shoulder seasons, the dead of winter, dead of summer, that this could really help cash flow our farm dream.

Diego Footer: What is it about lettuce that makes it such a great fit for market farms?

[00:04:54] Ray Tyler: I think one thing that's nice about this one crop is that there's two different ways to grow. You can do a direct seeded salad mix crop, which has a really fast DTM, or you can do it via transplants, which is still very fast. So from the time you seed to the time you can harvest, you're looking at seven to eight weeks, and that's really good.

[00:05:16] Say a tomato, you can be easily at four to five months from the time that you sees to this time that you're getting that full harvest window from that crop, where lettuce, you're getting really good price per unit that grows on a very small square foot. So if you have a small plot or you want to kind of get into, Hey, I already have a market, but I really want to increase my cash flow by a thousand dollars a week.

[00:05:45] Let's just say that's kinda like your benchmark. It's really easy. Like you can dedicate one bed a week, right? And get this flywheel going where it's pretty easy to generate an extra thousand dollars a week from different varieties of head lettuce, salad mix, and things like that. So it's one of these things that if you have a temperate climate and you have a good market, it's a really easy crop to launch and get going.

[00:06:21] Obviously, everyone knows microgreens is the easiest, but with lettuce, you don't really have to have as much intensive infrastructure as you do for microgreens. So I've just found it to be a very easy crop to kinda get going. It's not easy to grow consistently year-round, but it's one of these items that it's an easy sale for the most part, unless you're in a flooded marketplace. Everyone just knows what lettuce is. Everyone eats it. Restaurants serve a lot of it. They'll buy a lot of it depends on how you market and sell that. It's just one of those crops that if you can really focus on and dial in, it can make you and your farm a lot of money.

[00:07:12] Diego Footer: Easy to start, tough to master like anything else. And that's why we're doing this series. That's why you have the book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce, and we'll explore a lot of that book in this series.

[00:07:24] If you think about small market farms, what's possible if you just had a quarter acre and you dedicated that to say just lettuce, having a one crop focus or having the majority of its production in lettuce, lay the table. For a lot of people who do get into market farming, they struggle cash flowing that, they maybe struggle growing too much.

[00:07:49] And here's one crop that has a lot going for it. Quick turnover. Relatively easy to grow, high value per square foot. A lot of demand for it. A lot of different potential market streams for it. So for a small market farm, that quarter acre, what's possible with lettuce?

[00:08:07] Ray Tyler: There's a few ways I would look at that. Well, the first one is if that was the only crop you wanted to grow and sell, I think that is definitely possible. But you do have to look at your soil health, right? So if you're gonna grow lettuce on top of lettuce, month after month, you're gonna run into some serious problems. So that can be worked around either by adding, say, a few inches of compost, good quality compost, that's been tested between each proper rotation, which I've done before, or you're doing some kind of cover crop or maybe another cash crop like radishes or turnups or maybe kale.

[00:08:54] There needs to be some sort of system in place that takes care of your soil. Because if you keep growing lettuce and lettuce, you're gonna end up with a farm and a piece of ground that won't be able to grow lettuce for much longer. So really paying attention to soil health. So if you're doing that, then I would say, on a, you said a quarter acre, correct?

[00:09:24] Diego Footer: Quarter, half acre.

Ray Tyler: I would say easily someone could gross a hundred thousand dollars a year if they had some kind of tunnel structure that could help them in that shoulder season go through the wintertime. That, to me, would not be hard at all whatsoever. But the question is gonna be what are you gonna do with your soil? How are you gonna take care of that? And how much lettuce do you really think you can sell at a price point that makes you profitable?

[00:09:59] There's a lot of variables in that, but I would say at a big kind of picture, it's gonna be easy to make one to $200,000 on a quarter of acre if you have the market, you get good price, you're taking care of your soil, and you have protection from the elements.

[00:10:20] Diego Footer: For a more diversified market farm that has the radishes, carrots, root vege, maybe some things like kale, microgreens on the side. Do you feel lettuce or salad mix, I should say, as a key cornerstone crop? Like that is one of the major legs on the stool? I'll call it a production driver for most small farms. Maybe another way of thinking about it that is, can most small market farms survive without salad mix?

[00:10:53] Ray Tyler: I would say you could probably survive if you have a unique market and you can get good prices for those other items. I would say it would be a struggle to have a small micro farm. We're talking, when I say small farm, we're talking two acres or less.

[00:11:15] Right? Something that one or two people can manage. It's gonna be difficult not having that one crucial part to your farm operation and sales. It really comes down to sales. And so I just think lettuce is such a big part of people's diets that you have to think about, what do people want to buy? What are they looking for?

[00:11:42] What do they eat on a daily basis, right? And so as growers, it's really important that we're helping fit or we're help�how I look at farming is that number one, we're trying to take care of the earth, make it a better place. We wanna leave it better than the way we found it, but two, we have to stay in business.

[00:12:04] So that means we need cash flow. And I've just found, with myself, in helping hundreds and hundreds of farmers, lettuce is key. Number one. I have yet to find and talk to a farmer who doesn't say, man, if I could sell more, if I could grow more, I could sell it, but I just can't grow it consistently. It grows great in the spring, great in the fall, and so I just haven't found anyone that's ever told me, oh yeah, no, I don't need lettuce at all.

[00:12:36] It is a massive driver. I would say worldwide, cuz I've talked to farmers in New Zealand, Africa, and Europe, and it's massive. And so I think to not focus on it on an economic point of view for your business is a mistake.

[00:12:54] Diego Footer: I would echo everything you said from just the number of people I've talked to. It's like lettuce is always one of those crops that really drives that cash flow for a lot of farms. And it comes down to exactly what you said, can you grow it consistently?

[00:13:10] Cause I think people can just push it into the market. It's just can they produce enough all the time, or as long as their market will take it. And most markets, like I said, they'll take it any time of year, cuz most people are eating salad all the time.

[00:13:25] If we look at what's possible, and I say this to dangle that carrot out for people to what they could aspire to, you've been in the game for 15 years, almost 15 years now. So you've learned a lot a long way. So a newbie, don't expect to get here right away. But you're grossing over $500,000. If you look at lettuce as a part of your business, let's just say gross revenue-wise, how much revenue is lettuce contributing to that overall 500?

[00:14:00] Ray Tyler: I would have to look at my numbers from last year, but I wanna say it is a solid 25%, maybe a little bit less. Five years ago, I would say it was 50%, if not 75%.

[00:14:11] Cause we sold to a lot more restaurants. Really, what they want consistently is lettuce. So it's a little bit small in percentage. We're growing more of it, but the reason why it's small percentage cuz of our overall gross keeps rising each year. I think at the rate we're going, because we're really fine tuning our�like I'm getting better at growing lettuce every single year that I haven't not yet plateaued on mastering this crop.

[00:14:40] I'm projecting that we're gonna cross over the million-dollar mark in 2025. We almost were 600,000 this past year, not quite, so it was over five, almost six. I think we'll get easily to 750 this year, and that is because each year, as my soil health gets better and healthier, and we never miss a beat, and we're getting our disease and insects taken care of.

[00:15:11] Our yields are going up every single year. My team is getting better. We're getting, our infrastructure is always improving. We're never stopping. At this point, I am very confident that if you have the production and the systems in place, and you have the sales, and the people to do the task consistently, then a million-dollar acre farm�

[00:15:41] Soil-grown, not hydroponic, not a microgreen farm, we do sell microgreens, but I'm gonna say, I definitely see that million dollar mark arriving very quickly. So that's what's possible. That's what I'm seeing.

[00:15:57] Diego Footer: What's the land size you're on right now?

[00:16:00] Ray Tyler: We're one acre under protection. I have a four-acre lease total that includes a couple acres of woods, my home here, our shop roads, but the area square footage of tunnel space, that's what we're at. Under a little under an acre, but we'll just call it an acre.

[00:16:18] Diego Footer: And you have some great charts in your book that people can help figure this out for themselves, but $600,000. What do you think the profit is to farmer on that? What's a rough margin?

[00:16:30] Ray Tyler: I�ll give you as honest answer as I can. This past two years, our profits have gotten it. They have shrunk with inflation, and I have not raised the prices like I should have just because I hate asking people already struggling. And so, it's really hard for me to raise prices. So we're probably at 30% right now.

[00:16:51] I think before we were probably 40, we pay really high wages for our team. We're always the best team. I think we're at that 30 to 35% range currently, so it's not as much as it used to be.

Diego Footer: Do you think that 30% margin translates equally over to lettuce? Obviously different crops can have different profits margins, tomatoes, for example. A lot of maintenance, a lot of touching on 'em. Maybe a lower profit margin, where lettuce would take�

[00:17:25] Ray Tyler: I would say lettuce is probably 75% profit. It's insane. It's crazy, right? There's a lot of things we do that not a lot. There's a few things we do that break even. I would say lettuce is under that 80-20 principle right? So it's the 20% of the crop that we're growing that's given us 80% of our profit most likely, I would've to dive into.

[00:17:55] �Cause we grew a lot of variety this past year, but it's a massive, but what helps to sell more lettuce is having that variety, so because we're no longer going to wholesale, so because of the markets that I'm now selling to, to get the prices that I need, I'd have to play the big farm game of having a lot of variety.

[00:18:21] Diego Footer: With it being a big profit contributor and roughly 25% of your revenue, you have an acre in production, is lettuce 25% of the land usage on that acre, more or less?

[00:18:34] Ray Tyler: This year, I'm changing a new system. I'm actually making a big radical change based off of the last two years of some trials, which maybe we'll get into that later on. This year, it may be a little higher. It may be 25%, 20 to 25% possibly, but I would say yeah, of the land. But previously I would say 15, maybe 20. Like a wintertime when we have a lot more greens in the ground �cause they�re just growing so much slower.

[00:19:08] Diego Footer: And if we look at peak production, so summer, everything's moving. Or maybe it's more the shoulder season, early spring. What's the poundage of lettuce coming off the farm a week at your highs?

[00:19:22] Ray Tyler: Probably the most would be a thousand pounds a week.

[00:19:25] Diego Footer: And where's that bottom out in the slower season?

[00:19:28] Ray Tyler: So right now, January is our lowest peak of production. So we're at, we're probably three to 400 pounds.

[00:19:41] Diego Footer: So three to 400 pounds a week, up to a thousand. And that's�

[00:19:45] Ray Tyler: Up to 2000. I've done up to two or 3000 pounds in the summertime, but not consistently. That's not a consistent benchmark. It used to be, but this past few years has changed where it is becoming less and less, we're still making the same amount of money as we ever have on lettuces �cause we have been able to get more yields.

[00:20:10] And we've changed our pricing structure a few years ago, so it's been washed. Yeah. I would say it would be pretty easy to make it 50%, but I would need to get a good price point. I would need to get a lot more farmer's markets. And so that just gets�it's a game of�there's a lot of factors to consider if I were to want to grow and sell more lettuce.

[00:20:36] Diego Footer: All everything that goes with opening a new market, more people to sell it for you and all that stuff. What's the price you're getting per pound at a farmer's market?

[00:20:45] Ray Tyler: $10 a pound right now, currently.

[00:20:49] Diego Footer: And then where do you think that fits in from everybody you've talked to in consulting in that, is 10 average?

[00:20:55] Ray Tyler: So this year on my workshops, I found out that people were charging 12 to 15 and I'm like, and everybody was like, nobody is at 10 anymore. And so I felt behind the eight ball here. My goodness. I'm selling this stuff cheap. So, yeah. We're gonna fix that this year.

[00:21:14] Diego Footer: Right on. Now the final piece of the picture here, I have a two-person farm operation. Say it's husband, wife, two people, two friends working it. What do you think is the most lettuce two people could produce per week in the peak season? Just with two people and just keep in mind they have some other crops that go along with it that they're managing. Like where does it become, where do you start bumping your head with a labor problem with just two people?

[00:21:43] Ray Tyler: I know there was one season where my wife and I, we were doing about 400 pounds a week. It wasn't too difficult if that's all you're doing and pounds, I am including head lettuce in that equation, just so you know. So that's pretty easy to do. I would say four to 500 pounds, pretty easy. The issue with that poundages was selling it, so it wasn't the growing or even packing.

[00:22:14] It was really, okay, who can we sell this many pounds to at a price point that makes sense? I talked to a manager of an Olive garden here locally. They were paying $2 a pound for salad mix. They have a massive contract. This was at a year where I was like, maybe I should grow a lot of this stuff. What if I scale this up and go into some of these box kind of stores?

[00:22:41] And the manager was, they saw our mix, said, hey, we would love to buy this from you. It's way better. The stuff we get last a few days. But I'm not going to get outta bed for $2 pound head lettuce. I said, that's insanity, right? So I think that there's so many nuances to all this, but it's like you can produce it and pack it pretty easily.

[00:23:07] I would say one person could almost do that by themself if that's all they did, was seed, plant, harvest, wash pack. But the question is, who is that going to, and will you get paid?

[00:23:23] Diego Footer: Always the key in farming and in business, like your effort that you put in has to come out the backend in the form of profit, or else you don't have a business.

[00:23:31] And a lot of this series will dive into everything we talked about, pricing, marketing, growing lettuce, you have your book, The Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce. If people wanna get that book and follow along with this series, I'll link to it in the description below. What was the goal for it?

[00:23:53] Ray Tyler: There's a lot of things going digital, right? I have online courses that I've done really well. But for me, as a grower, I've always found myself going back to a manual book, like a physical, hard copy. Something that I don't have to log in, go and search. I want to revisit diseases or some kind of problem that I'm having just quickly or something that I want to have just the easy access chart.

[00:24:20] And so I thought, I want this for myself. And I know a lot of growers have asked about some kind of book manual, and so I thought about my 13 years ago self, who's just getting started, knowing that this could change my farm and my family�s life, if I could figure out how to grow and sell this consistently.

[00:24:48] And so I wrote this for that guy, that family 13 years ago who was struggling and really needed help getting over some of these complex but really basic problems, like, how do you get this consistent thing going? How do we solve diseases, planning schedules, writing down plans and pain points and all those things?

[00:25:14] So this is really out of writing this to myself, right? And under all the problems of just the environmental stressors of the extreme cold, extreme heat, creative sales outlets, there's just so many nuances that you don't think about when it comes to making sure that you can cash a check 52 weeks a year.

[00:25:38] So that's what this is for. This is really a manual, right? It's more of a practical flip through on any subject. It can really help point you in a good direction, right? Like it would've saved so much problems and drama in my farm.

[00:25:56] Diego Footer: �Cause I think it's different than a lot of books out there because it focuses on one thing: growing lettuce, and it's easy.

[00:26:04] I think of it almost like a, if you bought a book on bread versus a cookbook that's got a bunch of stuff that�s cover the A to Z of lettuce production. And to go along with that, you have the lettuce masterclass so people can get the book, follow along in the book if they wanna see more visuals of things that you reference in there.

[00:26:23] How are you watering? How are you spraying the crops? So what does transplanting actually look like? You have that lettuce masterclass. What can people get out of that?

[00:26:32] Ray Tyler: That is gonna be a much more immersive experience. I talk about watering in the book, but I show you the nuance, there's just little ways to water plants that it's hard to capture in words. It's better if you just show them how to do it.

[00:26:50] Like in the lettuce masterclass, I go through a whole year of production, winter, spring, summer, fall, and they all have challenges, right? And I've just found that it was really important to have this year long, okay, we're gonna follow this guy for a whole year doing this, and here's what disease looks like and this is why it happened and this is how I could have and should have prevented it.

[00:27:19] And so like you, you're not seeing this beautiful picture at farm at its best, you're seeing it in its best and the worst, how I'm solving problems, what we're doing. I go very detailed in building our irrigation systems, which we'll get into later in this series, and how I'm building piece by piece every system.

[00:27:41] So it's very detailed and when it comes to lettuce, like it really covers just every problem that I face personally. So it's gonna be a lot more fuel visually.

[00:27:54] Diego Footer: Yeah. Between the book and the course, it's one of those things that if this is a crop you really wanna focus on, and also knowing it's as big of a driver for most farms as it is, if you struggle with it, here's something to help you refine your system, work out some kinks, and if you get a few little tips and tricks out of it, the money that you spend on the book and or the course, that'll pay itself back pretty quick because you're probably growing a lot of lettuce.

[00:28:23] So if people wanna learn more, they can go to I'll link to that also below, but we'll continue on in the series, talking more about lettuce.

[00:28:35] There you have it. The lettuce series, episode one, featuring Farmer Ray Tyler. I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I hope it really helps your farm. If you're looking for additional resources to help on your farm, be sure to check out the show description for any tools referenced in this episode to get a copy of Ray's book or his online masterclass.

[00:28:59] You can check out the links below and if you're enjoying this episode, and if you enjoy this series, do me a favor and share it with a friend. That's all for this one. Thanks for listening. Until next time, be nice, be thankful, and do the work.

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