October 2007
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Making Grits the Old Fashioned Way – Growing Lettuce the New Way

From making grits to growing blueberries and hydroponic lettuce, these Elmore county farmers cater to their customer’s needs.

By Ben Norman

 
Joe Lambrecht prepares to grind grits at his modern day gristmill.  
Customers arriving at Oakview Farms Granary near Wetumpka may not see a giant waterwheel turning the millstones like great grandpa used to visit; but they can purchase fresh ground grits that are probably better than any great grandpa ever tasted.

Oakview Farms, off Redland Road south of Wetumpka, is owned and operated by Joe and Patty Lambrecht. The Lambrechts have created a niche market that attracts customers from all over Alabama and several foreign countries seeking their grits, cornmeal, blueberries, honey and even fresh yard eggs.

Joe said Oakview Farms started as a hobby.

"Patty and I had two draft mules that we carried to mule shows. We were at a mule show in Georgia where I got to talking to an elderly gentleman who had a small grist mill set up and was grinding corn into grits and corn meal. I told Patty I just had to have a gristmill. I bought several old mills, renovated them and started milling. Like a lot of businesses that started as hobbies, ours has grown into a full time business," said Joe.

The Lambrecht’s grits are their most popular product, but there is demand for their corn meal and flour as well.

"If you want to make good grits you have to know how to operate a gristmill, but you also have to have excellent corn. We use only quality open-pollinated white corn. Hard white corn cracks well and makes good grits. Old-time millers often used the same corn that was fed to livestock to grind into grits and meal. Feed corn contains too much oil and just isn’t as good for making grits and corn meal," said Lambrecht.

 
  Joe Lambrecht proudly shows off a crop of lettuce that is ready to harvest.
Patty said she can tell there is a movement, especially with young mothers, to get away from many of today’s processed foods containing preservatives and other additives.

"Our steadily increasing sales of blueberries, honey, free range eggs (eggs sold only onsite) and our latest product, hydroponic lettuce, tell me people are concerned about what they are eating. We now have a large base of internet customers from all over the United States and many foreign countries," said Patty.

The Lambrechts latest endeavor is growing hydroponic lettuce. This method of growing lettuce omits soil and substitutes water as the growing medium. Large troughs 60 foot long and 5 1/2 inches deep contain circulating water with added nutrients. "We begin with a seed that sprouts in a foam cube. It takes about a week for the lettuce to develop three or four leaves, and then it is transferred into the large floating trays made from household insulation. The floating trays have a hole in them where the young lettuce is inserted. It stays there until we harvest it," said Joe.

Several varieties of hydroponic lettuce are grown at Oakview Farms, including butter head, green and red curly, and romaine. The lettuce is ready for sale approximately 28 days from placing it in the growing trough. Joe said his lettuce is in demand because his customers trust him and Patty.

 
No pesticides are used in the production of Lambrecht’s hydroponics grown lettuce.  
"When I tell them there have been no pesticides or herbicides added, they know I am telling them the truth. Nobody touches this lettuce but Patty or myself," he said.

Insects are controlled in a unique old-fashioned way at Oakview Farms.

"We have a large flock of Dominecker and Rhode Island Red laying hens here on the farm. We let people come and gather their eggs right out of the hen’s nest. Children love to gather the egg they will eat for breakfast the next day. You would be surprised at the number of adults who have never gathered eggs from a henhouse. Watching them get that egg out from under an old hen that doesn’t want to give it up can be hilarious," Joe said.

"Laying eggs is not the only function served by our chickens," said Patty. "They control the insects, too. We have our fences and gates arranged where we can let the chickens feed around our lettuce growing greenhouse. A bug, cricket or whatever just doesn’t stand a chance when that flock of hens descends on them," laughed Patty.

The few insects that escape the wrath of these avian bug eaters are caught in hanging sticky tapes suspended from the ceiling of the hydroponic lettuce house.

Joe said growing produce commercially by hydroponics is a relatively new science in Alabama.

"Based on our success growing lettuce using hydroponics and the demand we have experienced here at Oakview Farms for it, I believe there is a real future for growing produce by this method in Alabama. With all the E. coli outbreaks, people are taking a hard look at how their food is grown and handled."

The Lambrechts have nothing but praise for Elmore County Exchange where they buy most of their agricultural supplies.

"We buy all of our fertilizer for our blueberry bushes there. I also buy all my dog, cat and chicken feed from Mac Free and the

other helpful employees at the Co-op. You don’t just feel like a customer there, you feel like you are a friend," said Joe.

A visit to Oak View Farms is like taking a tour of a family farm that has retained the best of the old methods of farming, but has also adopted the newer, healthier methods as well. Walking among the chickens, blueberry bushes and lettuce growing in water troughs gives one a warm and fuzzy feeling. It also creates an uncontrollable urge to dive into a big bowl of Joe and Patty Lambrecht’s custom ground grits.

Contact Oak View Farms at164 Dewberry Trail, Wetumpka, AL 36093, telephone 334-567-9221 or on the Web at oakviewfarms.com.

Ben Norman is a writer from Highland Home.