DEVENS — On a frigid January day, the sawtoothed roof of Little Leaf Farms greenhouse intersects a deep blue sky. Inside, it’s perpetual summer at 70 degrees with a gentle breeze, the exact temperature and climate that lettuce loves, says founder Paul Sellew.
Under the glass roof, five acres of lettuces look to be thriving, pushing up out of stone wool in green profusion. The greenhouses are quiet, only the faint whoosh of circulating air in the stillness. A worker glides past on a scooter, and an automated system moves one tray of plants to be harvested and replaces it with another of smaller lettuces. The scene is futuristic, nothing like farming as we might think of it. Yet, Sellew confidently says: “This, I think, represents the future of local food in New England.”
Consumers have grown wary of even leafy greens after the romaine lettuce ban last year involving E. coli and lettuces from California, and earlier cases involving Arizona farms. Although the California ban was lifted by US officials in early January, the continuing government shutdown, with limited inspections carried out by the FDA, adds to unease. So some shoppers have begun to look for produce grown locally and in a controlled environment with no chance of being contaminated by animal fecal matter. In New England’s harsh climate, that means growing indoors in the winter.
Sellew and his cofounder, Tim Cunniff, established Little Leaf Farms in 2015. Built on a Dutch greenhouse model and with a Dutch horticulturist Pieter Slaman as head grower, Little Leaf Farms grows millions of pounds of green leaf, red leaf ,and arugula hydroponically each year using only rainwater for irrigation, mostly sunlight (with LED lights when the sun isn’t strong enough), using no herbicides or fungicides, and with an automated system that requires few workers but constant quality control. Sellew, lanky and tall, shows off the systems of moving the plants, talks about nutrients, germination, water filters, and fans. But he also points out Alfonso Garcia, who he describes as a “mechanical genius” as they discuss a problem in the water storage system. The company has 50 employees.
After the lettuce is cut — it takes about 25 days from seed to harvest — packed by hand into plastic containers, and automatically labeled, it immediately goes into a cooler and stays chilled all the way through shipping and into the grocery, says Sellew. Its shelf life will be listed as about two weeks on the label, but Sellew says it actually will be good for about three. Pointing to a package, he says: “That was a live plant about a minute ago, and will be in the store tomorrow.”
Sellew and Cunniff, who previously built Backyard Farms growing hydroponic tomatoes in Maine, decided on Little Leaf after surveying the market. “No one was doing leafy greens in the way I thought it could be done,” says Sellew, whose family owns a large ornamental greenhouse operation in Connecticut and who graduated from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The California field growers dominated the grocery market, he recalls, and since New England was the farthest point from those fields, lettuce was spending a lot of time in transit. “Why do we have to eat old lettuce?” he says.
Their idea was to build food safety “into every step of the process” and use rain water, biological controls and sunlight plus energy-saving lighting for a sustainable system. And key to the plan, he emphasizes, is flavor. “You can never lose sight of the fact that you have to grow a product that tastes good.”
Cunniff handles marketing and sales of Little Leaf, which can be found across New England, including at Hannaford, Whole Foods, Market Basket, and Shaw’s, and many other grocery and specialty stores, in restaurants, food services and institutions, from the University of Massachusetts dining halls to wholesalers and distributors such as Sysco. Little Leaf has “90 percent market penetration,” Cunniff says. Packaged salad sales are “very much consumer driven,” he says. Since he and Sellew had built up trust for grocery produce buyers through their years with Backyard Farms, “I wasn’t surprised that we got the chance” to sell in grocery stores. “I was surprised by the passion for lettuce,” he says with a chuckle.
The romaine ban last year emphasized that need for a controlled environment, Sellew says. When the FDA issued the ban, Sellew was worried that consumers would forgo all lettuces. After contacting Jay Ash, then Massachusetts secretary of economic development, and Senator Edward Markey, who in turn intervened, the FDA amended the ban to say that product grown in hydroponic systems were not part of the recall.
The scare did help sales, Sellew and Cunniff indicated. When the grocery shelves were bare of California lettuces, many consumers turned to hydroponic local products. To Cunniff, the benefit was that shoppers tried their product and liked it, making it more likely that they would continue to buy the greens even after the ban was lifted.
Lef Farms, a smaller hydroponic greens grower in Loudon, N.H., also found more success when California romaine was recalled. “Our sales quadrupled in those weeks,” say Henry Huntington, co-owner of Lef Farms, and Donald Grandmaison, director of marketing. The farm, which grows three blends of greens and has been in markets for two years, sells to 500 retailers and is featured in Star and Shaw’s markets in Massachusetts.
Automation is also key to the operation, and Huntington says that helps eliminate as much risk as possible since human contact is sometimes a source of contamination. Grandmaison emphasizes the flexibility and speed to market of Lef Farms, which has 50,000 square feet under glass and produces 2,000 pounds of greens a day.
To outside experts on sustainable and safe food, there are concerns even about hydroponic methods. Dr. Ellen Messer, a biocultural anthropologist who specializes in food security among other disciplines and teaches at Tufts and Boston universities, says that closed, hydroponic systems are “not completely or necessarily” the answer for food safety because “so much depends on the diligence and details of the individual operations.” However, she adds that smaller operations that “feel a sense of responsibility to the local or regional community may feel more motivated to the operational details.”
Both Lisa Fernandes of Food Solutions New England, a collaborative working toward food security and justice, and Michael Rozyne, founder of the growers cooperative Red Tomato and on the Food Solutions network team, see hydroponics as part of the future of New England’s sustainable future in farming. Rozyne says he hopes the future includes farmers’ markets, but should not exclude consumers who buy chiefly at groceries. Hydroponic locally grown greens can be part of that, he says, if the processes are sustainable and lettuce isn’t traveling 3,000 miles. Plus, he adds of Little Leaf: “I have found their green leaf variety to be extremely tasty and aesthetically pleasing.”
Meanwhile, Little Leaf now sells all the greens that can be produced, says Sellew, and an expansion to double the size of the greenhouses in 2019 is already under way, with plans to add growing of spinach, kale, and other leafy greens. Little Leaf is not out to undermine the traditional growers in New England, he says, but to be part of the local ecosystem. In the future, he says, “we’re going to need to develop sustainable” methods of growing food. And Little Leaf, he believes, is part of that future.Alison Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.