The majority of the lettuce consumed in the US is grown in California. Needless to say, it sounds tragically ironic that a state plagued by droughts and wildfires is the biggest exporter of water in the US: after all, what is lettuce if not water? Such a situation poses a great risk to the lettuce supply. At the same time, it is also a great opportunity for growers. Little Leaf Farm, seeing that there was a need for a more decentralized lettuce production, set up its greenhouse in Devens, Massachusetts, proving that it is possible to grow the leafy green outside of California.
Chris Sellew, sales manager at Little Leaf Farms and son of Paul Sellew, founder of Little Leaf Farm, held a talk to explain to the public what’s going on at Little Leaf Farms and what their mission is.
The company has a 10-acre hydroponic greenhouse in Devens. “One major theme is that everything is automated,” Chris pointed out. He said that you’d barely see any people working in the greenhouse. “Everything is done by machines, from seed to packaging,” he said.
But how did this all start? “My father brought the tech together. The growing system was developed by a Finnish company called Green Automation. They designed this as an indoor system, but my father thought that it would work great in a greenhouse in Massachusetts.”
This allows Little Leaf Farms to carry out every cycle with precision down to the smallest details. After all, as Chris said, “yield is everything for a greenhouse grower.” To maximize the yield, all the automated processes are set up to provide the plants with exactly what it needs to express their full genetic potential. “We are all about giving the plant all it’s necessary and taking away all the stresses. We can control all the nutrients, we don’t spray the lettuce, and so we don’t triple wash it.” Chris indeed explained that some producers have to put their lettuce in chlorine baths to clean them up from any residues. “We don’t need to do that because we don’t spray lettuce. This also impacts the quality of the produce. That’s also why we get the cleanest product.”
Pests and pathogens are a huge threat to any grower, and open-field lettuce farmers are no less. Growing it in a greenhouse surely eases the pain, but keeping pests at bay is not that automatic. To address that, Little Leaf Farms has come up with some action plans. “For instance, our growers would walk around the greenhouse and look at the bug papers that hang all around. With that, they create a heat map of what’s flying around and where. Then, they’d buy the natural predators of the insects in question. On top of that, the greenhouse is connected to the packaging house. The greenhouse is 72 degrees all year round, while the packaging house is 37 degrees. So, even if an insect would pass through the inspection, there’s a natural temperature barrier that would push them to go back into the greenhouse without ending up in the packaged product.”
Additionally, Little Leaf Farms has also surrounded the exterior of the greenhouse with pollinators. “We plant all the beneficial flowers and plants and bugs too so that insects are attracted by the plants and then eaten by the bugs. We create a natural barrier with pollinators to prevent bugs from getting close to the greenhouse.”
The greenhouse mainly relies on sunlight – which was one of the biggest advantages of translating an indoor tech into a greenhouse setting. “We light the crops for 18 hours a day, but we do also use some artificial light if it’s necessary. But compared to indoor farms that are lit 24/7, we use far less electricity thanks to the greenhouse model.” Using some supplemental lighting allows Little Leaf Farms to keep growing through winter, with a minor trade-off. “Generally speaking, 1 hour of sunlight is equal to 3 hours under artificial light. This is because lighting companies try to mimic the sun with their fixtures. So, let’s not reinvent the wheel and use the sun. Yet, because of that, we get 10% less volume during winter.” Also, cycles are slightly longer in winter. “In summer, it is a 21-day cycle. In winter, it is 23 days.”
That aside, the greenhouse model not only allows the company to consistently put out quality lettuce, but it also serves to greatly reduce food waste. “99% of the lettuce we harvest ends up packaged. It seems as if it’s less of a farm and closer to a manufacturing plant,” Chris chuckled. At the same time, the 1% of waste composed of leaves that fell off is not thrown away. “We take the leftover lettuce and give it to a nearby farm to feed chickens.”
To better serve the lettuce market, Little Leaf Farms is expanding its operation in Pennsylvania. “We are scaling up with 10 acres in PA. Eventually, it’ll be 60 acres of just leafy greens in PA. Although we have big brand numbers, we cover just 1% of the total sellable market for leafy greens. There’s a lot of room to grow for us.”