LOUDON, New Hampshire—It’s almost impossible to shimmy through the greenhouse operation at lēf farms, and that’s by design.
From seeding to harvest to packaging, no one touches anything.
“The whole process is automated, which allows us to minimize the food safety risks,” says DJ Grandmaison, sales and marketing manager. As DJ walked me through the lēf farms greenhouse, a 1-acre operation within commuting distance of Boston and Manchester, New Hampshire, he pointed out the features that make lēf farms hands-off.
Gutters are filled with peat moss instead of rockwool, seeded by machine, and fed into the greenhouse on a conveyor. They start on a lower level, near a heated floor, to germinate and then are rotated up to the top level for about two weeks, while automated fingers walk them across the greenhouse.
On day 14, a computer “shops” for the right blend of gutters from the ready-to-harvest product, and it’s whisked away to the cold room for packaging.
Still no hands have touched the greens. The gutters chill for a few minutes before they’re taken through a machine that clips the lettuce, mixes the blends and bags it for sale.
“Chilling before harvest is nearly doubling our shelf life,” Grandmaison says. “We’re getting close to 28 days, and that’s just phenomenal.”
Food waste is a big issue for retail and foodservice customers, as well as consumers.
“We want to make sure there’s no waste,” he says. And that includes using peat moss instead of rockwool. The media is composted and used for other purposes, a system lēf farms had to customize. “It took us some time to sort out the technical issues, but we’re really excited about the potential.”
Speaking of timing, it’s taken lēf farms about five years to get up and running from ideation to the first harvest. Started by Henry Huntington, who also owns Loudon-based Pleasant View Gardens, an ornamental plant nursery, the farm broke grown in September of 2015, and sold its first order in early January.
Huntington was looking for a more consistent, year-round operation as the third generation of his family was joining the business. Ornamental plants are seasonal, whereas salad greens know no season, Grandmaison says.
The two biggest problems with farming are labor and water. Grandmaison says the company wanted to find a system that addressed both issues, and found it in a Finland-based company called Green Automation.
Grandmaison says at full production at its 50,000-square-foot greenhouse, lēf farms can produce 66 times more per acre than open field, using 1/10th the water.
After researching hundreds of seeds to find those that grow well in the gutters and media, lēf farms launched with three blends of lettuces:
- Smooth, a blend of leaf lettuce, pac choi, mizuna and oak leaf;
- Spice, a blend of arugula, mustard, Cressida, mizuna and green leaf;
- Balance, a blend of red and green baby kale.
The company hopes to bring its customers a fresher, longer-lasting product year-round. Its shelf danglers poke fun at the 3,000-mile trip most lettuces take from California to reach New England, but Grandmaison is serious about fresh.
“At the end of the day, our goal is deliver something new, something fresh, within 24 hours of harvest,” he says.