I started growing lettuce out of desperation. The selection at my grocery store in the North Carolina mountains was brown or wilted, and the farmers market ran out of romaine by the time I arrived on Saturday morning. So in early May, I transplanted a set of organic seedlings in my front yard. Lettuce thrives in cool weather, so I watered the leaves daily when they wilted in the midday sun. I even shaded them with an umbrella when the thermometer hit 80 degrees, ignoring my husband’s laughter.
Within four weeks, my tiny crop was ready for harvest. The green leaf lettuce had a grassy scent, without any of the mustiness I detected in store-bought heads. The romaine smelled sharp and fresh, almost like an herb. All of the leaves were small and soft, with none of the plastic crunch of packaged romaine. When dressed with olive oil and vinegar, they tasted like spring.
Such success seemed a minor miracle to me, a novice gardener who routinely kills basil and tomatoes. Why doesn’t everyone grow lettuce? And why can’t I find lettuce like this at the grocery store? I wondered as I painstakingly rinsed and packed each remaining leaf between layers of paper towels. I planned to harvest the entire head of romaine as soon as it grew a bit bigger. But I never got the chance.
During the first week of June, it rained for four days. I watched as delicate green stems collapsed into the soil and the leaves shredded. My lettuce crop, like others around the Asheville region, was ruined. And I began to understand why so few stores sell local lettuce.
“Our varieties that we grow on the East Coast, they taste better, but they don’t last as long,” said Andrew Rose of New Sprout Organic Farms in Black Mountain, North Carolina. “There’s a lot of factors that make it difficult to produce.”
Roughly 90 percent of commercial lettuce sold in this country is grown in California or Arizona, where the weather is predictable and growers have nearly a century of experience breeding, packaging, and preserving lettuce. Last spring and fall, when E. coli from contaminated romaine infected 272 people and…