George Nelson, Sweetbay Produce

US (SC): Former homebuilder sprouts hydroponic venture

After a 25 year career as a homebuilder and craftsman, George B. Nelson decided that it was time for a career switch, and started Sweetbay Produce & Nursery. Eight years later, he is one of the few suppliers of locally grown fresh hydroponic produce to a large number of restaurants, chefs, schools and grocery stores in Charleston, South Carolina.


The Nelsons in their greenhouse

George started his hydroponic venture at a moment that he wanted to start working closer to home. He built his own home on a 16 acre property in Huger, and it did not take long before he sprouted the idea to start a greenhouse operation on it to provide his community with locally grown produce.

Self taught

"When I started I had no background in horticulture or agriculture, but I found information on it on the internet and I started to read as much as I could", George says. Eventually he delved deeper into it and obtained a two year degree in horticulture from the local technical school. "I wanted to learn as much as I could before I made any investments in our first greenhouse."

Shortly after, George ordered his first two bays of gutter connected greenhouses from Atlas, a greenhouse manufacturer that was located 5 hours from him in Alapaha, Georgia. He also installed hydroponic channel systems from American Hydroponics. Eight years later, George's company Sweetbay Produce has 5 employees and a total of six bays of gutter connected greenhouses.


George Nelson together with his structure supplier Atlas Greenhouse during the recent Cultivate show in Columbus, Ohio.

In search of his first crop, George decided that he wanted to start growing hydroponic leafy greens; the most consistent crop that offered him the lowest risk. "Although they have a lower revenue profit margin, it was a good crop to start with. I have also tested the market with other crops like peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, culinary herbs and even edible flowers."

In addition to this, George offers a unique selection of Hydroponic Microgreens. "I grow these not in a greenhouse, but in a totally separated controlled environment with LED lighting. Many of the local restaurants are big fans of them."

Dynamic offer

And those local restaurants soon became more interested in the dynamic product range Sweetbay Produce could offer them. Currently they supply about 16 different products to one hundred restaurants, depending on the season and menu changes. "Because it is such a dynamic ordering process for chefs, we seed the crops and products that the chefs demand. All of the chefs want to be unique and offer products that no other chef utilizes. We help them to achieve this by growing special products for them."



Currently the hydroponic bibb lettuce, frisee, five colored leaf lettuces, basil and six species of microgreens are George's main crops. "These crops carry my main revenue stream and allow me to optimize. Seasonally we add other crops, depending on what the customers ask for."

As an example, George mentions the Mexican Gherkin Cucumbers that he grows for a few top chefs. "I am the only one in the area that can offer them this product fresh. The sommeliers and bartenders use them to garnish drinks and chefs use them to create special accents on main dishes."



The Charleston grower is not one of those that want to grow 25 bays with the same crop, offering the same product year round at the lowest price. "I want to grow for a niche, growing special products at a high quality and be known as a highly consistent, dependable grower. I want to stay dynamic, not putting all of my eggs in one basket."

Community Served Family Farm

Sweetbay Produce has three delivery vehicles taking care of direct deliveries of their USDA and GAP certified produce to top chefs in Charleston. They also serve Harris Teeter, a large grocery store chain that belongs to Kroger, and they are a select vendor to the Charleston County Public School system, providing fresh and locally grown healthy produce to students in South Carolina.

As George's business is thriving, he sees plenty of room for growth. "We just put two new bays and a new microgreens facility in operation. We can do another expansion, but before we do so we want to optimize all of the growth space we have in our current operations to see what this does to our revenue stream, before we grow to the next level. As a Locally Grown - Community Served family farm we enjoy what we have today and we look forward to what the future offers us!"


For more information:
Sweetbay Produce
George Nelson (e-mail)
www.sweetbayproduce.com

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