December 2, 1999 | By: Aimee D. Heald
LEXINGTON, KY

With the current tobacco situation in the Commonwealth, many tobacco producers are searching for possible alternatives or additions to their enterprise.

Tobacco greenhouses hold possibilities for other crops. Many greenhouses are home to floating beds that nourish tobacco seedlings. These floating beds also can be used for leaf and bibb lettuce, mustard greens, and possibly other crops. UK's horticulture department is investigating which crops work best for this system.

"Although many tobacco farmers think the float-bed system is easy and want everything to grow that way, it's difficult to adapt other plants to it," Bob Anderson, horticulture specialist for the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, said. "The one that will adapt, and has been grown that way even longer than tobacco, is lettuce. Lettuce grows that way just fine, but we want to see how some other things grow as well."

Anderson is doing research at UK's Horticultural Research Farm to determine what other kinds of plants will thrive in a float-bed environment. He said float-bed technology has been around for about 20 years, and tobacco growers have been using it for eight to 10 years.

The trays are pretty standard and common in Kentucky. They were developed for the vegetable industry, but not for float systems. Tobacco is a tough plant and able to tolerate poor growing conditions – that is why it works in the float system. Research has shown lettuce is much the same, depending on how it's done.

"We're trying to use the same system tobacco growers have, and grow something else," Anderson said. "So we've got lettuce and mustard greens, and we'll try another 15 to 20 things. I have some unique plants to be used at greens and herbs that we can try. The seed is readily available and there's probably a market."

Most of the crops will probably be more marketable to restaurants, since leaf lettuce is used mainly by commercial enterprises, not the average consumer.

Lettuce grown hydroponically, or in float beds, is cleaner than lettuce grown in a field. And, since the push these days is for more organic crops, lettuce and other greens grown in float systems may be more desirable. UK will experiment with organic fertilizers in its floating crops. The next step would be to go to pesticide-free crops, and it could take a couple of years to get to a point where that is feasible.

"The lettuce market is year-round," Anderson said. "The problem is, when you sell to wholesalers they expect you to be there tomorrow – they don't expect you to say you're going to take three months off to grow tobacco. So, that will be the hard part. People will have to reduce their greenhouse tobacco to be viable in the lettuce business."

Anderson thinks the way to be successful is for a group of Kentucky farmers to get together, create a unique product, and work together to produce and market that crop. Opportunities exist for tobacco farmers using float beds in their greenhouses. Contact your county Extension agent to find out more.

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Writer: Aimee D. Heald 606-257-9764 Source: Doug McLaren 606-257-2703