Jim Rigney is now on his 4th career.
After decades spent between military intelligence, Duke University, and then working in the corporate world, he decided to try his hand at hydroponic farming, and it couldn’t be going better. For him and his wife Amy, growing premium lettuce is less about building their wealth, and more about building a sustainable enterprise that can have a positive impact on their community in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and beyond.
Just because it’s something of a “retirement job”, that doesn’t mean that Jim approached it haphazardly. In this Featured Grower interview, we’ll cover his journey into hydroponics, the methods to his early success, and his advice for new growers.
How did Lil Rooster Farm come to exist?
My career has taken me around the world, and into so many unique industries. As I got into my 60’s, I wanted to find something to do close to home. My family had owned some property in Pittsboro for a while, and I just really wanted to do something productive with the land. I looked at all sorts of things, and hydroponics really appealed to me. My wife Amy and I are both very earth friendly, so the idea of growing food in such a sustainable way sounded amazing.
We heard about the AmHydro seminars. I wasn’t ready to commit to hydroponics, but I thought attending a seminar seemed like a sound investment. I’m so glad I did. I came away with a great feeling, pulled the trigger, and here we are.
Did you have any farming experience beforehand?
Not at all! I never had a green thumb, I had a black thumb. Anything I’d put in the ground, I’d kill instantly. It was a huge leap of faith. Amy and I both had a lot of business experience and confidence. But the first month or two was really scary. We made a few mechanical mistakes early on, but growing with NFT is the easy part.
The more interesting challenge was figuring out how much to plant and grow, and when – so that we weren’t growing either wastefully or insufficiently. Hydroponics is so simple to learn though, and really rewarding.
What does your business model look like?
First of all, I knew I didn’t want to do farmers markets. Some people love that, but the idea of sitting around all day had no appeal for me. I also didn’t just want to sell to a big box distributor. What I decided to do was survey the food and dining landscape in the area. That was when all the pieces started falling into place. We recognized that there were a large number of retirement communities in the area. These were full of older individuals who appreciated the finer things in life, like great dining. The cooks there were excited to build a relationship with me and bring in the premium quality lettuces I could grow.
I also got to know several local chefs and started selling directly to restaurants. All of these places get a hand-delivered crate with lettuce that was alive in the channel that very morning. They love it, and I love it too. That’s absolutely one of the benefits, just getting to be out in the community. We plant 1,260 head of lettuce every week, and every week we sell 1,150. The rest is donated to a food bank and a local church that hosts a weekly community lunch.
How did you get in the door with these customers?
Just cold calling, essentially. I started going into places and asking to talk to the chef. Each time, I would bring in a little marketing pack, bring a crate of lettuce, and share my pitch. They all loved the product. I’d come back in a week with more samples, ask if they wanted to sign up, and they would. It’s not a hard decision for these folks, because at least in our area, the only competition is bagged lettuce that’s been on trucks for days. We give them top quality, consistency, a fair price, and a person they know who will show up. No one else can beat that.
Some farmers and consumers question whether hydroponics can grow produce as effectively and deliciously as soil. What would you say to people who have these doubts?
I only grow leafy greens, but my customers rave about it.
I go into these retirement communities, and the members come up and tell me: “I love it, it’s the best we’ve ever had.” A dining director told me he gets death threats if he doesn’t have my lettuce. That said, I know you can do other vegetables hydroponically, like tomatoes, but here in our area, the soil works just fine for that. I’ve never had a hydroponic tomato that compares to the home grown tomatoes around here. But when it comes to lettuce, I grow the best in town, and I do it hydroponically.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you’d share with someone who is just starting out in hydroponic farming?
I’d have to imagine that the biggest challenge for anyone coming in is simply: How are you going to sell your crops?
Not a lot of people want to knock on doors, but that might be what you have to do. Of course, the easy way is to sell it to a distributor, but that’s just a job. Fine by me if that’s your approach, but I think you also need to get some enjoyment and satisfaction out of what you do. So I’d say look around at your area. Where do people eat? Retirement communities, schools, restaurants. Anywhere else? Where can you build a long lasting relationship?
You have to go out into the community and look, then build your marketing packet and be prepared to give away a couple crops.
Here’s a free idea; one of the smartest things I ever did. One of my first customers was actively involved in a big chef association. I invited him to have his next meeting at my greenhouses. Lots of chefs showed up and I got two new accounts.
What has it been like to work with AmHydro?
I’ve really enjoyed working with AmHydro. My primary contact has always been Rudy. He and I met at that first seminar. We got along then and we’ve been working together ever since. I know I can always call or email Rudy, and he’s right on it. Gets me what I need when I need it. I also watched a lot of the online videos when I got started. Found them helpful. And of course the channels speak for themselves; still reliable as the day I bought them.
With a couple exceptions, this is what I sell.
We’ll pack up 32 of these crates tomorrow morning, all full of freshly harvested plants. If you order from me, here’s what you can expect: I’m gonna walk into your kitchen, pick up some big tubs, put some water down, drop the plants in, and get an invoice signed. Then I’m out the door. No trash. We’re reducing our carbon footprint and yours.
And you’ve never tasted lettuce this good. Oh, by the way, all credit for this idea goes to my wife Amy. Our customers love it. We have almost the exact same set of accounts as when we started over 5 years ago. If this wasn’t my retirement job, I’d be looking to put up another greenhouse!