By Erin Bassler, Correspondent
DEVENS – In most cases, the lettuce sold in a typical New England supermarket is raised and harvested in California and Arizona. After being shipped across the country over several days, the produce appears on the shelves and in our dinner salads.
Little Leaf Farms in Devens is developing a better, faster and fresher way for shoppers to buy their favorite greens practically off the roots. It is a healthier, more environmentally conscious alternative for salad-lovers, compared to lettuce that sits in transit for six days, the company says on its website, littleleaffarms.com.
Starting this month, Little Leaf Farms, partnered with MassDevelopment, will produce locally grown baby green and lettuce mixes out of its fully automated greenhouse.
The food will be naturally grown, completely pesticide-free, and on sale within a day of being harvested. The growing process takes 21 days, from seeding to harvest, before the final products are ready for the stores. In the state-of-the-art greenhouse, recycled rainwater is used and a natural gas boiler provides heat. The glass exterior will maximize the use of natural sunlight, while LED lighting will increase the efficiency of the winter harvest while using 40 percent less electricity than regular lighting, the company said.
“There is a great opportunity to grow a fresh, great-tasting baby greens right here in New England,” said Paul Sellew, chief executive officer and co-founder of Little Leaf Farms.
Mr. Sellew has always been interested in the “concept of a New England salad,” according to Little Leaf Farms’ client marketing manager Lisa Hoguet.
Mr. Sellew was most recently the co-founder of Backyard Farms in Madison, Maine, which he, Ms. Hoguet and MassDevelopment deem to be the East Coast’s biggest producer of year-round, greenhouse-grown tomatoes. Mr. Sellew is aiming to do the same with baby lettuce and Little Leaf Farms.
Upon completion in mid-May, Little Leaf Farms’ greenhouse will be able to regularly sell its green mixes to New England supermarkets, including Shaw’s, Market Basket, Whole Foods Market and Hannaford Supermarket.
“We have to produce a lot of lettuce to sell to regional grocers,” said Mr. Sellew.
Little Leaf is selling two types of bagged salad greens — a spring mix and a 50-50 mix of red and green leaf lettuce. Other crops will include green, red and blonde lettuces as well as arugula and red chard.
MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development and finance agency, has provided Little Leaf Farms with a $4.5 million loan and sold 14 acres in the former U.S. Army base to Mr. Sellew. The area was picked for its central location. The facility is largely automated, instead of labor intensive, and needs just 10 employees.
Tim Cunniff, co-founder of Little Leaf Farms, and head grower Pieter Slaman help make up the team. Mr. Cunniff, like Mr. Sellew, most recently worked at Backyard Farms, where he was head of sales and marketing. Mr. Sellew said Mr. Slaman is an experienced greenhouse grower from the Netherlands and the fourth generation in his family to work in the growing business.
“Nobody on the East Coast is doing what we’re doing on the same scale,” Ms. Hoguet said.
With more than 90 percent of lettuce greens still being imported from California, Little Leaf Farms already has plans to expand beyond the three acres that the greenhouse building uses.
New England is “a big market,” said Mr. Sellew. “New Englanders and Americans eat a lot of salads.”