Grits and lettuce —- two things you don’t usually find being produced on the same farm. But at Oakview Farms Granary that is exactly what you will find, along with herbs, honey, fresh eggs, fruits and vegetables.
Joe and Patty Lambrecht have had a gristmill operation at their farm in Wetumpka since 1998, but just got into growing hydroponic lettuce two-and-a-half years ago.
What started out as a hobby has turned into a booming business for the Lambrechts.
Joe first became interested in milling when he met an elderly man with a gristmill at a mule show. From there, he started buying old gristmills, fixing them up and then he began milling.
The Lambrechts started making cornmeal for fun, while both still working corporate jobs.
"We were making cornmeal and giving it away," Joe said. "Then we started selling it."
From the cornmeal, the Lambrechts decided to move onto something a bit more challenging —- grits. Since Joe was already familiar with the milling process, it didn’t take long for them to figure out exactly how to make grits.
"When we started making grits, our business took off," Joe said about the best-selling product in Lambrecht’s mill operation.
"We got the mill going and it was doing really well," Joe continued. "Then I retired from the car industry."
"The whole grain industry jumped up when the ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ program happened; a lot of things just kind of fell into our laps," Joe explained about the early success of the family-owned and operated business. "Timing is everything."
Today the Lambrechts make cornmeal, grits and flour. They mill yellow and white cornmeal, and yellow and white grits. Every day they ship orders all over the country to individual homes and upscale, white tablecloth restaurants. A big buyer of Oakview Farm’s products is the Marriott Hotel Corporation. The chefs at the luxurious Marriott Hotels across Alabama use the Lambrecht’s products daily when preparing their finest meals. Some of the hotels buying from Oakview Farms include The Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa in Hoover, The Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa in Florence, and several other fine hotels.
Oakview Farms is one of the few milling operations still doing things the old-fashioned way and that is part of what makes their products some of the best in the world.
"We grind with stone," Joe explained. "The reason we use stones is because stones don’t heat the grain up. If you don’t heat it, you save the quality of the grain."
Freshness is also a big selling point for Lambrecht’s products.
"We grind on demand," Joe said. "So everything is fresh when he leaves here."
Joe suggested all the products from Oakview Farms be refrigerated after purchasing to maintain freshness.
In addition to selling to upscale restaurants and hotels, the Lambrechts sell all the products they make straight from the farm at their retail store.
"We have so many people to come through looking for something to spend money on," Joe said. "We don’t want them to leave here if they can’t buy something."
The Oakview Farms retail store not only has their fresh-made grits, meal and flour, but also sells raw honey, real Amish butter, cheeses, jams, jellies and chowchow —- just to name a few.
"Everything we sell, we eat," Joe said. "There is nothing in our store we don’t eat."
The Lambrechts also sell their products online and at farmers’ markets which keeps the couple busy during the summer.
"The grits pay the bills, so we can do other things," Joe said.
Other things like growing hydroponic lettuce. The idea for growing lettuce started out as sort of an experiment.
"I thought the lettuce would do well here because there is really no competition," Joe reasoned.
"I don’t have to compete against field crops in Alabama," Joe said. "A couple times of year some people will have some lettuce in their home garden, but it goes away pretty fast —- the heat, the cold or the rain gets it."
The experiment turned out to be quite successful. Today, lettuce is the second best-selling item at Oakview Farms.
Like the grits, the Lambrechts sell the lettuce to individuals and restaurants.
"I already had the contacts with the restaurants cause of the grits," Joe explained. "So I didn’t have to go out and beat on cold doors. All I had to do was pick up a head of lettuce and say ‘Chef, look what I got.’"
"The chefs like this lettuce because its pesticide-free and herbicide-free," Joe said. "But we aren’t organic because we do raise it with synthetic fertilizer."
At the farm, the Lambrechts have three greenhouses in which they grow five different varieties of lettuce year-round. Of the five varieties, butterhead is the most popular among customers. The lettuce is grown hydroponically on a table made of wood with a Styrofoam house board for a tabletop. The table is filled with water and fertilizer. Germinated seeds are placed individually in small holes in the Styrofoam. The practice of growing crops hydroponically began with the Aztecs centuries ago. Once the seeds are placed in the hole, they will grow for 25-40 days depending on the variety and the preference of the customer buying the lettuce.
"Surprisingly enough, we grow lettuce at different ages or different sizes for different chefs," Joe said. "Some chefs prefer baby size, some prefer it a little larger,and some prefer it really mature."
The Lambrechts have found most chefs at high-end restaurants prefer for their lettuce to be small and tender, but the retail industry wants it as big as they can get it.
"At any given time we keep about 8,000 heads at some stage; it could be at the germination stage or ready to harvest," Joe said. "The goal is to have lettuce for sale every day."
Joe and Patty Lambrecht welcome visitors to their farm. They offer tours to individuals and groups September through November and start back up after the holidays giving tours the second week in January through the first of May. For more information on Oakview Farms and their products, visit their website www.oakviewfarms.com.
Mary-Glenn Smith is an AFC intern.