How hydroponic farms are changing the salad scene

Average winter temperatures in Caledonia, Michigan, hover around freezing, and you’re lucky if you see the sun. But at Revolution Farms, winter is the peak growing season. Rows of crisp romaine and bibb, delicate arugula, frilly red and green sweet crisp, and other varieties are sprouting, maturing or being harvested and packaged before making the short trip to local grocers, restaurants, and a few wholesalers within a few hours’ drive.

The greens are able to grow no matter what’s happening outdoors, thanks to the farm’s three-acre, state-of-the-art indoor facility. Not your typical greenhouse, Revolution relies on two methods of farming: a fully hydroponic deep-water culture system and a hybrid, known as a moving gutter system. “If we can grow in Michigan, where we have extreme temperature swings between winter and summer and major humidity level and sunlight changes, we could grow anywhere,” says John Green, Revolution Farms’s aptly named co-founder, chairman and CEO. 

The idea for Revolution Farms grew from another unlikely place: Eleuthera, Bahamas, where Green’s daughters attended the Island School, a high school program focused on sustainability and environmental education. “I was amazed when I saw how they were growing lettuce in these extreme temperatures, with no soil as part of the process,” says Green, who is on the school’s board. “I thought, ‘Wow, if we could do that in Michigan, we could provide 12 months of consistent, predictable growing.’”

At the time, Green was also the board chair of the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, and he and his partners were already exploring ways to improve the quality of produce in their community. “Ninety-five percent of the lettuce being purchased was coming in from California, so there was a freshness issue, plus cost and the environmental impact,” he says. “After having conversations with local retailers, we found that there was definitely interest in alternatives.”

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