Mini & Full-size Head Lettuce for Market

Growing Mini versus Full-Size Head Lettuce

A Look at Differences & the ROI

Rod Heyerdahl - Commercial Sales - Southeast USA
"My customers like the minis for their dense growth habit, flavor, and convenient serving size."

— Rod Heyerdahl, Territory Sales Representative, Southeast US

Demand for mini head lettuce is on the rise, as consumers, chefs, and grocers take note of the excellent flavor and shelf life that "just-a-handful" lettuce offers. Market growers are finding that mini heads can be much more profitable than full-size heads. Yet full-size heads still dominate the lettuce market. We know you have to grow what sells best for you, which is why Johnny's offers an extensive selection of head lettuce types.

In this article, we take a look at some of the advantages, key differences, and the return on investment between the two, so you can decide whether to experiment with this emerging market trend.

FULL-SIZE HEAD LETTUCE is fully mature, multiserving heads, cut and sold by the unit. Most lettuce varieties can be grown for mature heads.

MINI HEAD LETTUCE, by comparison, is single-serving size.

Mini heads are approximately 6" in diameter, and can thus be spaced at 4 per square foot — about the same footprint of a single full-size head.

Minis may be full-size head lettuce varieties that the grower harvests at a smaller, immature stage. Some full-size head lettuce varieties become dense early in their growing cycle and, if planted at relatively close spacing and harvested early, will produce quality, mini-sized heads. Prime examples include:

Three colorful, hand-selected varieties, each possessing the exceptionally sweet flavor and soft, tender heart for which the Bibbs are known.

View All Our Mini Bibbs

OR, they may be "true minis" — varieties with genetics that produce heads that are small at maturity. These are bred to grow tight and upright, producing densely packed, diminutive leaves in a compact fashion, up off the ground. Among the finest:

Left to Right: Dragoon, Breen & Truchas. Ranging from green to bronze-red to dark-red, this organic set is not only perfectly proportioned for presentation as a 3-pack, but delicious — crisp, sweet, and juicy as only the true Romaines can be.

View All Our Mini Romaines/Cos

TIME & SPACE

"I love the mini heads for my chef market. Especially the mini romaines, because they can stand up to a little heat, and a lot of my chefs sautée them. I love the full-size heads for my CSA market, where volume is paramount. I can give someone one head of lettuce as opposed to 5 mini heads."

— Zaid Kurdieh, Norwich Meadows Farm, Norwich, New York

Mini heads offer the grower the ability to produce a marketable crop in less space and less time than full heads. Their small size allows for denser spacing.

Here are some rough calculations. (You can plug in variables or estimates according to your own lettuce cultural practices and records.)

A 10' section of bed, 4½' wide, accommodates:

  • 40 full-size heads at 12" spacing
  • 180 mini heads at 6" spacing

For full-size heads, let's assume approximately 40 days to maturity from transplant, and for mini heads, 30 days to maturity from transplant.

Then, if the beds were initially planted on the same day, they would produce 3 crops of full-size lettuce, or 4 crops of mini head lettuce.

Thus, over a 120-day period one could grow:

  • 120 full-size heads
  • 720 mini heads

GROSS

  • At a market price of $2 per full-size head versus $1 per mini head, you would gross $240 on full-size heads, or $720 on mini heads.
  • At a market price of $2 per full-size head versus $1.50 per mini head, you would net $240 on full size, or $1080 on mini size.

FACTORING IN ADDITIONAL COSTS

Granted, you would have to start, transplant, and finish 2 flats of lettuce for mini versus 1 flat of full-size head lettuce for the same cycle. So, let's say that growing out a 98-cell flat of lettuce costs $15 in seed, materials, labor, and what-have-you.

  • Full-size: Using the numbers above, the additional cost of producing 3 crops of full-size heads is about $18.
  • Mini: The additional cost of producing 4 crops of mini heads is about $110.

BOTTOM LINE

According to these calculations, you could sell the mini heads for half the price of full-size heads, and still make almost three times the money over a 120-day period.

Little Gems in a Basket
Basket of Baby Bibbs

With numbers like this, it might make sense for you to develop your market for mini heads. Ideas for marketing include selling mini heads in colorful mixed boxes to chefs, or combining one red and one green mini in a bag to sell at farmers' markets. Consumers are increasingly attuned to the flavor, quality, and convenience of baby vegetables, and many will seek out single-serving heads.

As well as being perfectly sized for single-serve salads, some varieties of mini head lettuce are suitable for grilling, braising, and wilting. Their exquisite texture, flavor, and appearance make them a popular menu item at high-end restaurants, where they are often referred to as "Little Gem" lettuce. Horticulturally speaking, 'Little Gem' is an old-fashioned variety that is a cross between Romaine and Bibb. Newer varieties such as Newham and Bambi are improved 'Little Gem' types. Rosaine is a 'Red Gem' type, and Cegolaine is a bronze-red, or half-green/half-red beauty.

As demand continues to grow, you may find that mini head lettuce can become an important crop for you. At minimum, mini head lettuces can nicely complement your head lettuce offerings, and help you branch into additional marketing channels.