Growing Mini Versus Full Head Lettuce
Why It Makes Sense
Demand for mini head lettuce is on the increase, as consumers, chefs, and grocers take note of the excellent flavor and shelf life that mini head 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'll tell you more about mini head lettuce, so you can decide whether to experiment with this rapidly emerging market trend.
Which Is Which?
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. They can be either:
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. These include Concept, Cherokee, and Magenta (Summer Crisp types); and Panisse and Rouxai (Oakleaf types).
Varieties that produce genetically mini-size heads include Breen, Dragoon, Fenberg, and Truchas (Romaine/Cos types); and Bambi, Cegolaine, Deer Tongue, Rosaine, Spretnak, and Winter Density (Bibb types).
Time and space. 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, 4.5' wide, accommodates:
Let's assume approximately 40 days to maturity from transplant for full-size heads and 30 days to maturity from transplant for mini heads. Then, if the beds are initially planted on the same day, they could produce three crops of full-size lettuce, or four crops of mini head lettuce. Thus, over a 120-day period one could grow:
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-size head mini, you would make $80 on full size, or $540 on mini size.
Factoring in costs. Granted, you will have to grow two flats of lettuce for mini versus one flat of full-size head lettuce for the same cycle. So, let's say that growing a 98-cell flat of lettuce costs $15 in seed, materials, labor, and what-have-you. Using the numbers above the additional cost of producing three crops of full-size heads is about $18. The additional cost of producing four 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.
Off to Market
With numbers like that, 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. Point out that the mini heads are single-serve portions, a convenience for many people. Lettuce also keeps better as an intact head, so the customer won't experience the browning that often occurs when large heads are cut into portions.
In addition to being perfect for single-serve salads, some varieties of mini head lettuce are suitable for grilling and wilting. That being the case, mini heads are very popular in high-end restaurants, where it is often referred to as "Little Gem" lettuce. Horticulturally speaking, however, Little Gem is an old-fashioned variety that is a cross between Romaine and Bibb. Newer varieties such as Bambi and Winter Density are improved Little Gem types. Rhazes is a Red Gem type.
As demand grows, you may find that mini head lettuce can become an important crop for you. At the very least, mini head lettuce can nicely complement your head lettuce offerings and help you branch into additional marketing channels.