High-Tech Farming Puts Sound Local Salad on New England Plates Year-Round. Even in Winter.
Photos by Adam DeTour
Here’s a startling fact: Over 98% of U.S.–produced lettuce is grown in California or Arizona. If you’re scratching your head right now, you wouldn’t be alone: It is indeed baffling that, given that the composition of lettuce is 95% water, it’s primarily being grown in two of the most arid states in the nation.
What’s more, growing lettuce in these areas relies on water from costly irrigation canals or scant, non-replenish-able groundwater (up to 40% of California’s groundwater, in times of drought). Processing often involves hand picking and trimming, which can introduce harmful bacteria and unsanitary conditions; to counter this, lettuce is typically washed in chlorine and other sanitizers—not water—to reduce the incidence of pathogens. (More shortly on the truth of “triple-washed” lettuce.)
To reach us in New England, mass-produced lettuce travels over 3,000 miles, uses vast amounts of fuel, creates pollution and is often a week old (or more) by the time it reaches our store shelves. In other words, its carbon footprint is absurdly high and nutrient levels diminished. And unless you’re a homesteader, a devout locavore or a total carnivore, chances are this is the kind of lettuce you’re especially likely to be eating at the height of the New England winter.
So what’s a conscientious salad lover to do? Locally sourced greens are the pinnacle of New England springs and summers: snappy, tender, delicate leaves likely picked mere hours ago by a friendly farmer not far from your home. Dressed simply and served with good bread or soup, they add color and life to a healthy meal. Early-summer farm shares overflow with all manner of crunchy lettuces, crisp cabbages, squeaky baby greens, peppery arugula. By the autumn, the local offering begins leaning towards heartier, more fibrous counterparts such as collards and kales; come winter, the drastic reduction in outside temperatures and diminished sunlight means local salad production slows significantly—or is costly and unreliable.
There are, of course, ways to extend the greens-growing season and cultivate leafy produce when it’s bitterly cold outside. If you’re into growing your own, cold-frame structures can go a long way towards successful small-scale production without artificial heating. For those of us who prefer to just buy our greens, commercial local production methods include traditional greenhouses, hydroponics and hoophouses (also known as high tunnels; essentially greenhouses with plastic or metal frames covered in plastic sheeting). These offer significant crop protection from the elements, the ability to produce more crops on less land and reduced losses due to disease or pests. However, these methods typically involve high startup costs, as well as a lot of time, space and manual labor. They also rely on sunlight (which can be unpredictable in Northeastern winters) and the fertilization and drainage of soil. Changes in any of these parameters can affect the yield, quality of produce and the financial stability of the farm producing it.
Luckily, along with our notoriously harsh winters, New England is also well known for advances in technology—and two agricultural producers are using them to better grow local, sustainable and clean salad greens all year round. Yes, even in winter.
Little Leaf Farms (Devens, MA) and Fresh Box Farms (Millis, MA) are two Massachusetts producers using high technology in differing ways. Their non-traditional farming methods are more environmentally sound and higher yield-ing than traditional growing methods, and allow them to grow fresh, flavorful local lettuces and salad greens through-out the year.
Paul Sellew (CEO, Little Leaf Farms) and Sonia Lo (CEO, Fresh Box Farms) shed some light on what makes their greens, well, greener.
LITTLE LEAVES WITH A BIG PURPOSE
A New England farm boy, Sellew previously founded tomato-producing Backyard Farm and has spent his career around agriculture. He is a passionate believer in the local food system, and wants to do his part to improve the local food economy. “Right now we import 90% of our food,” he says. “That’s not sustainable! Not only are we dependent on others, but we lose freshness and quality in the process. We should become more self-reliant.”
Historically, he explains, the U.S. has had a world-class culture of field farming because of its vast swaths of arable land. In other parts of the world, greenhouses are the preferred method of growing food: They make the maximum use of sunlight, which is free and carbon-neutral.
We don’t have much of a greenhouse culture in Massachusetts yet, but Sellew is looking to change that. Since its inception in September 2015, Little Leaf Farms has built “the most modern, technologically advanced greenhouse in the world.” Much of the technology is proprietary and carefully controlled; there are strict rules about what can or cannot be photographed. The facility relies primarily on sunlight, supplementing with LED grow lights and 95%-efficient natural gas-powered heating in the winter months. The greens are grown hydroponically on a disease-free substrate to protect precious topsoil. They use 100% captured rainwater, and the fertilization and irrigation systems require up to 90% less water than field-grown greens. Only non-GMO seeds are sown, and pests are controlled biologically, never chemically. Finished product is delivered to stores within a day’s drive—often reaching shelves the same day it was harvested—resulting in a vastly reduced carbon footprint compared to the product brought in from the West Coast.
The standout feature at Little Leaf is how heavily automat-ed the whole process is—only 10 people work there, and none ever touch the product. From a food safety standpoint, that’s mighty impressive. (Traditionally grown greens can house hordes of dangerous microbes because of the way they’re grown and handled.) The baby greens are seeded, grown, cut and packaged without being touched by human hands, earning them their “Clean From The Start!” trademark promise. Sellew speaks fervently about the “triple-washed” tagline so often seen on mass-produced lettuce packaging. “It’s all marketing jargon,” he says, explaining that it is just a sign of how contaminated the product must initially be. “Do you take three showers when you get out of bed in the morning? How dirty would you have to be?”
Little Leaf Farms produces arugula, green leaf and red leaf lettuces and a mesclun spring mix on their three-acre facility. They’re setting up to break ground on another 10 acres later this year. The product has been very favorably received by local groceries and institutions alike, including several area colleges and Mario Batali’s Eataly Boston. More at www. littleleaffarms.com.
(Story continues after photos)
SALAD IN A BOX
Fresh Box Farms is about packing it all in. CEO Sonia Lo—who speaks seven languages and holds a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do—chose to invest in the company when she realized how efficient the economics were. Its specialty? Modular ”growing enclosures”—compact, controlled-environment containers that grow greens hydroponically in a dense, vertically stacked format.
“The modular approach has helped us by keeping the individual unit investment low and by allowing us to have discrete units in which we could test individual plant varieties very quickly,” explains Lo. “Large hydroponic growers have to wait until their entire facility is built out, for a significant sum of capital, before they can grow a single leaf. We are able to get a farm up and running with nine weeks of ordering the equipment, and we do it for about ¼ of the cost of setting up a non-modular vertical farm.”
The box enclosures certainly rank high on the high-tech scale, boasting perfectly controlled interior environments driven by custom software. In essence, each box functions
as its own independently operated sustainable farm. Lo calls this “DDA”—distributed digital agriculture—differentiating it from other forms of vertical farming or hydroponics: “The ‘digital’ part is the key differentiator. We have written extensive software for our own purposes that we use to control and manage each of the enclosures. We tried some off-the-shelf solutions initially but they didn’t meet our needs. The ‘distributed’ piece is also a little bit different because our modularity allows us to be in very small locations.” The boxes can be run on a very small footprint, year-round, in an urban or suburban environment— meaning they can be placed in parking lots, stores and restaurants for truly distributed agriculture.
In contrast, greenhouses “have a much larger footprint, in terms of square footage, because they generally only grow in a single layer,” Lo says.
Growing their greens on vertical shelves is indeed in-credibly efficient: each 40- by 8-foot enclosure can provide a month’s worth of salad needs for 1,500 families. It would take about 19 acres of farmland to produce the same amount using field agriculture.
But the tech doesn’t stop there: Fresh Box Farms was also awarded a patent for the lighting technology it developed. “It’s very exciting,” says Lo. “Our patent covers the interaction between the lighting and the plant growth cycle. The way we use our lights is one of the keys to being able to grow our product so effectively in our little boxes.” Plants receive 100% artificial light to ensure a consistent product; the energy impact is about the same as field-based farming, but “we are constantly working on improving this,” Lo says.
Other sustainability and environmental points include using 99% less water than field farming, keeping delivery areas within 100 miles of the farm and not needing to use any pesticides or herbicides whatsoever—organic or otherwise—because of the mechanically controlled clean environment in which the plants are grown.
Fresh Box Farms’ products include a spring mix, a 50/50 mix, spinach, arugula, romaine, rainbow chard and kale, with a spicy mix and power blend coming soon. The product is on store shelves between 24–48 hours of being harvested, and consistently sells out. Inspired by its rapid success, Fresh Box Farms plans to expand across New England and into other parts of the country as well. Learn more at freshboxfarms.com.
So the next time you’re trudging home through a Boston snowstorm and craving local lettuce that tastes as good on your plate as it feels on your conscience, take heart: The “salad days” of salad are over.
This story appeared in the Spring 2017 issue.