US vertical grower's GardenBox grows lettuce right at the store

Natural Grocers has joined the hydroponic farming trend, but with a twist: the produce grown inside is certified organic. Right now, the chain of 162 stores in 20 states has just one GardenBox, as it calls the shipping container that houses the hydroponic farm where it grows several varieties of lettuce.

Mike Boardman, who spent six years as a store manager for Natural Grocers, runs the GardenBox at a Lakewood, Colorado, store where the company also has its headquarters. The 320-square-foot GardenBox sits just behind the store, on the southeast side of the building. Boardman says it is 82 steps from the farm to the produce section, and it will be even closer at other stores.

The idea of the GardenBox came from the top, he said. Kemper Isely, chairman and co-president of Natural Grocers, wanted to try something new, something that was both organic and hyperlocal. The project started in July 2020, and Boardman signed on in October. Before offering the lettuce for sale in July, Natural Grocers offered 2,100 plants from the GardenBox free to customers in late June.

Victoria A.F. Camron Mike Boardman, who spent six years as a store manager for Natural Grocers, runs the GardenBox at a Lakewood, Colo., store where the company also has its headquarters. "Customers have been really excited about it," Boardman said. Some have asked if he would teach a class about hydroponic gardening. "People want to know more about it." Even in the store, the lettuce roots are housed in water. If consumers continue to keep them in water, the lettuce could stay fresh for a couple of weeks. The varieties — Hampton, Brentwood, Alkindus, Tropicana, Muir, Marciano, and Truchas — are not commonly found in grocery stores, Boardman said, because they are too fragile to ship. After experimenting with different types, he knew which would grow best in hydroponics. His final choice, though, was personal. "Mostly, it was things I like," Boardman said.

For the structure itself, Natural Grocers contracted with FarmBox Foods, a Sedalia, Colo., company that designs and builds the climate-controlled container farms that opened in 2018. According to its website, FarmBox Foods' closed-watering system uses 3-5 gallons of water per day, yet can produce the same yield as 2-2.5 acres of farmland over a year. The container farms are fully enclosed, protecting the produce from extreme elements. Full-spectrum LED lights provide sunshine-like benefits, while a computer controls the temperature and humidity.

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