Masters of the Greenhouse

I used to run in Oakwood in the mornings, early, and my runs would take me past Raleigh City Farm. Rounding the corner of Delway Street, I’d look over at the greenhouse and more times than not, there would be Matt and Chase out back, each spinning a head of fresh lettuce in hand, carefully picking off any brown outer leaves. I’d wave and they’d wave back.It’s hard not to be impressed by guys like that.Matt and Chase run Endless Sun Farms at Raleigh City Farm. They are a couple of RCF’s “farm entrepreneurs”—new farmers who benefit from their association with RCF and headquarter their business on its land. Endless Sun is a hydroponic urban farm that grows and sells various types of lettuces and basil—all sold with the roots still attached so they stay fresher longer—and has recently added tomatoes to their production. Their produce makes its way on to the menus of a number of Triangle restaurants, and into the hands of individuals who buy a CSA Farmshare from Farmers’ Collective, another farm entrepreneur business headquartered at RCF.Matt and Chase are like the business equivalent of high school sweethearts—they met when they were young (Boy Scouts) and have been together pretty much ever since. Both are originally from Raleigh and studied business and horticulture at NC State. It was in college that the two developed an interest in hydroponics—the eco-friendly practice of growing plants in nutrient-enriched water instead of soil. Plants typically grow in soil, but it’s the nutrients found in the soil—and not the soil itself—that the plants need for development. Hydroponic growing methods use far less water and nutrients than traditional farming, take up less space, and eliminate fertilizer run-off entirely since the system recirculates.Matt and Chase’s initial interest in hydroponics grew into a passion, and they believed that the local residents and restaurants in Raleigh would embrace hydroponic produce. They started Endless Sun in 2013, renting a plot of land from Raleigh City Farm and building the greenhouse themselves. “We both really love growing plants,” says Matt. “It’s never seemed like work.”In October of this year, Endless Sun expanded to Durham with two new greenhouses, one for lettuce and one for tomatoes, each twice the size of their greenhouse in Raleigh. Walking through them, you can’t help but notice how beautiful they are—bright and pristine, row after row of perfect green leaves sprouting out of holes in long white pipes. Stick your nose up close to a tomato dangling from a long, thick vine and the smell is summer itself.  These new greenhouses have allowed the Endless Sun guys to quadruple their production. Their staff is expanding too: they now have five employees and will be hiring more in the coming year. Expansion looks like success but Matt is quick to point out that while the Durham greenhouses are an accomplishment, they’re still too new to be called successful. Their biggest success this year, he says, is maintaining a steady and healthy supply of lettuce.“Hydroponic plants are so sensitive. In prior years we had pests or disease to the extent that we had to wipe out the greenhouse and not have any production at all for a few months. Over this past year we’ve had no break in production at all. This leads to a better quality and more consistent product. We are now better equipped to react more quickly and respond more appropriately to a whole variety of factors that need to be managed.”In the coming year, Matt and Chase hope to establish and develop new and better markets for the additional production that they now have, while also making sure they aren’t spread so thin that one part of the business falls short. After all, these are the guys who personally inspect each head of lettuce that leaves the greenhouse walls.  They’re proud of their product and proud to be part of a sustainable, healthy local food system.But a local food system can only be sustainable if there’s demand from the locals. “One of the best things anyone can do [to support local farm production] is to pay attention to what’s on the menu at the restaurant you’re at, and to request that the restaurant buy locally,” says Matt. “Put those restaurants on the spot. Show them what people are willing to pay for.”  

RCF’s year-end giving campaign supports Matt and Chase and other new farm entrepreneurs who are in the early stages of building businesses that enrich Raleigh’s local food system. Your support helps them continue to do the work they love and bring better food to your table.