A big operation for those baby greens

  • Lef Farms, which plans to produce salad greens hydroponically year-round, is currently under construction in a Loudon gravel pit.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Lef Farms president Henry Huntington explains how the automated growing process will work during an interview last week.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Cooling pads inside the Lef Farms greenhouses are part of the careful measures planned for keeping the envrionment under tight control for growing salad greens year-round. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • A “gutter” has holes ready for hydroponic planting as seen at Lef Farms in Loudon last week.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Lef Farms President Henry Huntington (left) and Vice President Bob LaDue (right) stand inside one their greenhouses last week. The Loudon farmers say hydroponic production of baby salad greens is expected to begin in July. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Lef Farms is using Finnish technology to grow fresh baby salad greens year-round in Loudon. The greenhouses of the $10 million operation are shown recently. BELOW: A sign off Route 106 points to the farm, built on an old gravel pit. Photos by ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/31/2016 11:52:56 PM

Turns out it takes about $10 million, some seriously large greenhouses and high-tech, hydroponic growing equipment to produce those little baby salad greens year-round in the Northeast.

That’s according to Henry Huntington and Bob LaDue, who are some of the first people to try such a venture in the United States. The pair are currently putting the final touches on their operation, Lef Farms, located in an old gravel pit along Route 106 in Loudon.

“We hope to be in production somewhere around the first of July,” said Huntington, Lef Farms’ president.

When they’re up and running, the controlled-environment greenhouse will be filled with peat-lined gutters moving along a mechanized assembly line of seed planters, fog-sprayers, plant snippers, conveyor-belt scales and packaging areas in a large, automated, hydroponic growing system.

Though they’ll begin in the heat of summer, Huntington and LaDue plan to be growing local lettuce, bok choy, mustard greens and other baby greens, and selling it here in New Hampshire, 365 days of the year.

That’s highly promising to someone like Huntington, whose family has run Pleasant View Gardens for three generations. The business mainly sells flowers during the month of May, but Huntington said he’s been searching for ways to maximize the space and the capital invested in those greenhouses.

“We do about 35 percent of our business in four weeks,” he said. “You really need to be year-round.”

Enter LaDue, Lef Farms’s eventual vice president, who spent many years researching, running controlled-environment growing operations out of Cornell University, and consulting others who want to do something similar. LaDue said the goal has always been year-round plant and food production in the Northeast, though it hasn’t been until recently that his idea has come to fruition.

“That industry, that concept, is finally taking off,” LaDue said. “People do really want to produce food of significance year-round here in New England.”

Huntington and LaDue met several years ago and began developing the idea for Lef Farms. They decided to grow lettuce and salad greens in a joint operation, traveled around the world to find the right controlled-environment growing system, and then bought perhaps one of the least fertile, non-arable 80-acre chunks of land: an old gravel pit.

For a row of greenhouses, though, Huntington said the Route 106 real estate was perfect.

“We like big pieces of level land,” he said.

Construction began around Sept. 1, and you can now see four peaks of the massive, opaque greenhouse, plus the green equipment building adjoining it. Huntington said the whole project has been a $10 million investment – they don’t have any government grants – and he and LaDue are banking on current food and market trends to make the risk worthwhile.

“Overall consumption of salads has skyrocketed in the last 15 years,” LaDue said. That, in conjunction with higher demand for local, fresh food, creates a business opportunity, Huntington said, for baby greens grown right here in the Granite State.

“We tried to do a lot of market research, just to make sure this was going to fly,” Huntington said. New Hampshire isn’t the only place attracting year-round greens-growers – LaDue said other operations are under way in Chicago and Massachusetts, too.

“We’ve talked to numerous buyers as well,” Huntington said. He added that local food services and retailers have shown “extreme interest.”

Lef Farms doesn’t have any contracts yet, but Huntington said it shouldn’t be long before they’re selling their initial three salad mixes – a spicy mix, a buttery mix and a kale mix – across the Northeast. They expect to produce 3,500 pounds of greens a day.

Lef Farms also plans to expand. It has 50,000 square feet of greenhouse now, and LaDue said the equipment should be able to support 250,000 additional square feet of production space.

LaDue and Huntington have designed other efficiencies into Lef Farms, and developed a non-labor intensive, totally automated hydroponic system designed by the Finnish company Green Automation.

“It’s a major breakthrough,” LaDue said of the equipment. “It’s still new and it’s evolving quickly.”

By using tight environmental control measures in the greenhouse design, LaDue said they don’t plan to use pesticides, fertilizers will be targeted, and both water and the soil – peat – will be used as efficiently as possible.

Any organic waste is also expected to be composted by Lef Farms and reused or be sold to the community, Huntington said.

LaDue also designed the Lef Farms operation with the new federal Food Safety Modernization Act rules in mind, which are currently being rolled out.

“We feel like we’re generally going to be ahead of those requirements,” LaDue said.

Overall, he added, Lef Farms is designed to create something unique, and of course, delicious. After growing for an average 18 days, the baby greens will be stored in a cooler as soon as they are harvested, which keeps them fresher, and tastier, LaDue said.

“We’ll grow a more tender green,” he said.

First, though, Lef Farms needs that Finnish equipment. It’s arriving in the next few weeks, and by October, Huntington said, the greenhouse should be full of greens.

But he and LaDue aren’t necessarily in a rush.

“It’s really thinking about what’s best for the marketplace, best for the consumer – doing it right,” Huntington said. “We’re just trying to figure it out.”

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

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