Lettuce to Everyone
A Hydroponics Plantation Provides Islanders with a Valuable Boost of Vitamins and Iron

November 11th, 2011
by Thomas Tomczyk

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Blue Harbour Plantation shade house

Blue Harbour Plantation shade house

For almost ten years now Roatan has been getting its lettuce from a hydroponics plantation in Mud Hole. While few people have visited the place, Blue Harbour Plantation is soon to become a place visited by thousand of tourists keen on tasting tropical fruits and seeing a Honduran farm from up close.

The Blue Harbour Plantation, 128 acres of rolling, wooded hills was started by Jana and Val Eylands in 1998. “We fell in love with the place on our first trip down and bought our farm immediately,” says Val Eylands who has a PHD in Agronomy, while Jana has an MBA from University of California Berkeley.

Both worked for many years for USAID in Africa and Asia and met in Rwanda in 1990. “It was a virtual war zone, just before the genocide got out of control,” says Val. Val worked as the head of a USAID agricultural project, and Jana was the controller for the USAID office in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. The couple was evacuated from the troubled country and married a year later.

They chose Roatan over other more developed Caribbean islands because “we had both spent most of our adult lives in the developing world, and we felt that we still had something to give to our host country.”

When they saw the lack of produce in the local island stores they decided they could best contribute by creating a farm that could grow hydroponic lettuce and herbs. Even though they had little experience in hydroponics, they built a greenhouse to see if the entire project was viable. With the plants becoming hugely popular amongst friends, Blue Harbour Plantation launched as a business in 2001.

By 2002 the farm began supplying island resorts and restaurants. Rich, flavorful and clean lettuce soon found local customers eager to buy the bags of Blue Harbour Plantation lettuce mix for Lps. 70 a pop from island grocers.

According to Ana Svoboda, business manager, the biggest sellers of their lettuce are Plaza Mar Supermarket and Eldon’s Supermarket. Anthony’s Key Resort and Palmetto Bay plantation are some of the plantations biggest commercial customers.

Roatan isn’t the only place where Blue Harbour sells their lettuce. There are Blue Harbor clients in La Ceiba, Utila and Guanaja. Pico Bonito Lodge and Expatriates in La Ceiba are some of Blue Harbour Plantation’s clients in La Ceiba.

“We could have made a lot more money by going to a developed Caribbean island. Everyone would like a BHP on their island, but there are only four at present,” says Val. “But money wasn’t our main objective in choosing Roatan. We wanted to continue training developing country agriculturalists and help Roatan develop its tourist industry.”

Over the last ten years the plantation has certainly educated people about agriculture and hydroponics. Seven full-time employees produce, harvest, package and deliver 12,000 heads of lettuce each week. Most have worked at the plantation for years and live in the nearby Mud Hole community.” I consider those seven people to be some of the most technically trained agricultural workers in Honduras,” says Val.

The three managers, in fact the entire staff of seven working at the plantation, are Honduran. Javier Antunez, greenhouse manager, has been with the plantation from the beginning. “He could match his growing skills with any lettuce grower in the world,” says Val about Antunez.

Armando Jenizotty, sales and distribution manager, has been working at Blue Harbour for eight years and is the company’s “face” to its clients. The newest edition to Blue Harbour Plantation is Svoboda, business manager, who started with the company in 2010. “Without her we could never have navigated the new round of regulations and taxes,” says Val of Svoboda.

The entire vegetable growth process begins with the seeds. They are shipped every two to three months from a seed company in the US, Paramount Seeds out of Florida, which provides seeds for a variety of lettuce types: Bughatti, Laurelm Soltero, Bergamo, Navara. Every week the plantation uses around 17,000 seeds, each of which almost always produce a live plant.

“We do not use GM [genetically modified] seeds, nor is it even a consideration in lettuce production,” says Val. He says that in the developed world almost every food has already genetically modified through plant and animal breeding programs. Val believes that the danger of GM foods is not to human health, but in monopolizing and patent protection of GM foods by a few mega-agricultural corporations. “The proprietary high input agriculture that they [corporations] advocate has an adverse long-term affect on soil erosion and fertility, water quality and biodiversity,” says Val.

A tray of young lettuce

A tray of young lettuce

Over the years Val has seen his attitude towards industrialized agriculture evolve and change. “I now abhor the paradigm of industrialized agriculture. It is not sustainable, not healthy, not good for the farmers, wasteful in fossil fuel energy,” says Val who is currently constructing a research greenhouse on his farm in Arkansas. “I will research organic forms of hydroponics and aquaponics–fish plus plants in the same system.”

Blue Harbor’s seeds are planted by hand into small sponge blocks, allowed to germinate and placed in twelve-foot-long, narrow PVC channels. Attached to each end of the channels is a water drip, as lettuce and herb seedlings require a constant drip of water and are most vulnerable after newly sprouting. “If we get an electricity shut down for more than 20 minutes, the lettuce suffers,” says Svoboda. The water contains fertilizers and nutrients that the plant needs for growth. The herbs and lettuce plants are moved three times during their growth cycle prior to harvesting in order to maximize space use in the greenhouse.

The most critical element of the operation is the water and its content, which must be monitored every few hours. Plants growing without the filtering qualities of soil are especially susceptible to imbalances, temperature changes, and pests.

The water used for irrigation is cleaned through reverse osmosis and 17 essential plant nutrients are added, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. After the nutrient solution is made, the water is checked for balance, pH, and is chilled and aerated before heading out to the NFT (nutrient film technique) PVC gullies.

The nutrient-rich water is delivered to the gullies at the rate of one liter per minute. Flowing down a 2.5% slope it barely covers the lettuce’s roots and continues to the end of the 12 foot PVC channel, where it is collected in a drainage tube and returned to the tank. Since all water is recycled, hydroponics uses just 10% of the water of field-grown lettuce.

Similar savings are transferred in efficiency of labor and use of fertilizers. Hydroponics is a technique that is rapidly increasing in popularity and is becoming the farming technique of choice in water starved areas around the world.

BHP’s lettuce is grown year round in seven shade houses, each 30’x100′ providing around 30% shade. In a seven week period, the lettuce turns from a seed to a mature head ready for picking. “Some lettuce heads grow small and tight, others are big and loose. It depends on the weather,” explains Svoboda. The lettuce sells primarily by volume: in bags or in cases.

The main shade house accommodates the main crop of lettuce and protects lettuce from direct sunlight, which prevents the lettuce from tasting bitter. The floor of the shade house is cleaned several times a day using water and Clorox. “It keeps away pests or diseases that could be brought in from outside,” explains Svoboda.

While the vast majority of the plantation is a lettuce farm, there are also trays of herbs. Growing herbs requires a slightly different and stronger fertilizer than lettuce and sometimes a different growing base, such as perlite, is used.

The herbs that Blue Harbor currently grows are now some of the farm’s biggest sellers, especially basil and mint. It takes about two weeks to grow the herbs. The farm has trays full of maturing mint, basil, parsley, cilantro, dill and chives. The hardest one to grow is parsley, which is finicky and temperamental.

With the appearance of several new supermarkets and vegetables shipped from Chile via US, the growing of other vegetables isn’t very viable on Roatan. “Although we were able to grow excellent tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers for seven-eight months of the year, the remaining months were too hot,” explained Val. “The vine crop space in the greenhouse had to remain unused.” Growing competition from mainland and US tomatoes cheaper (sometimes half the price) didn’t allow for Blue Harbor to make sufficient profit.

“We have two major battles that we have continued to fight for our 12 years of production-the heat and the government,” says Val. As lettuce is a temperate crop, it does not grow naturally in tropical conditions. The nutrient water running around the roots must be cooled with large, electric water chillers. “We must do everything in our power to keep the lettuce cool throughout its life.”

Over the last several years the price of energy has gone through the roof on the island and eroded much of the plantation’s profits. Energy hungry chillers are indispensable to the operation, but their operating costs in the summer are prohibitive, the plantation’s RECO bill topping at Lps. 50,000.

A floor in the shade house is regularly cleaned

A floor in the shade house is regularly cleaned

In a cost saving effort the plantation has resorted to using less chilled water to irrigate the plants. “We like to have the water at about 78 degrees Fahrenheit, but we often have to settle for 85 degrees,” says Val.

The Eylands feel that the local or central governments have in no way helped or encouraged the growth of their business. They feel unappreciated for the effort they made in creating jobs and providing a product that would otherwise not exist on Roatan. “We receive nothing but grief from customs and the Ministry of Agriculture,” says Val. “The main impediment to our operation has been the ever-changing and always more oppressive government permits, taxes, and regulations.”

While the plantation applied and got a ZOLITUR license two years ago, it found little benefit to the tax-free import status. “With the broker’s fees, higher shipping rates than for the mainland, and all the permits we need anyway, we have not found ZOLITUR to work very well for us,” says Val, who believes that operations which create local jobs while diminishing reliance on imports should be automatically tax and duty exempt.

Living in Africa and Asia prepared the Eylands for doing business and living on Roatan. “Had I not somewhat adapted to the frustrations and discomforts of living in a developing country during those years, I may have given up on BHP after a few years,” says Val, who sees himself as a farmer, scientist, and businessman.

After 12 years, having grown tired of fighting the same fights, feeling a bit restless, and thinking that age 45 was too early to retire to a small island, the Eylands moved back to the US. “Jana’s health and the unsolved murder of our neighbor, Steve Jazz, really started it all off,” says Val about the couple’s move. “We did sell the land and a position in Blue Harbor Plantation, but I remain the managing partner and majority owner of the hydroponics operation,” explains Val, who returns to Roatan to check on the farm every two to three weeks.

The new owner of the land and partner in the Blue Harbour Plantation’s operations is Kenn George of Dallas, TX. “He has entered the operation with a great deal of enthusiasm and some strong financial backing,” says Val.

The envisioned future of the farm is not just as a growing hydroponics operation but as a “botanically-themed” tourist attraction to cruise shippers, projected to open in 2012. George has teamed up with builder Boyd Svoboda and horticulturalist Helen Murphy to turn Blue Harbour Plantation into a theme park of tropical fruit orchards, a tropical arboretum, large flower gardens and mini fruit plantations similar to the ones on mainland Honduras. “It is fun for me to see BHP hydroponics, the old orchard and gardens–everything–being given a good future with the continued development of our old farm,” says Val. [/private]

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