The lettuce farm of tomorrow may be taking root less than an hour from Boston.
“Farm to table.” The term has become so ubiquitous as to be nearly meaningless. But a Massachusetts startup that sits at the crossroads of old-fashioned Yankee sensibilities and the most innovative new technologies is poised to put some of the original spirit—locally sourced, freshly picked—back into that shopworn phrase.
From the outside, Little Leaf Farms looks like a nondescript office park building; it could house anything from widgets to top-level-clearance government employees. Inside, however, is a greenhouse operation so advanced that nothing quite like it exists elsewhere in the United States. The brainchild of partners Paul Sellew and Tim Cunniff, it encompasses three acres that until September were nothing but forest on the side of a road in Devens, a small community about an hour west of Boston, best-known as the site of a former military base.
“It’s pretty simple,” says Sellew, an imposingly tall, Cornell-educated redhead who calls himself “a New England farm boy.” (His family owns Prides Corner, a large agricultural business in Connecticut that produces ornamental plants.) “The U.S.D.A. estimates that we import over 90 percent of all the food we eat, from either foreign or domestic sources. Ninety eight percent of the lettuce we consume is grown in California and Arizona, and it takes six to seven days to ship it here. The idea was: How can we move the needle and deliver fresh product, locally grown?”
Because New England’s farming season is roughly 10-12 weeks long, the answer was clearly greenhouses. And after touring facilities around the world, Sellew found what he was looking for in Holland, which he calls “the world’s leader in greenhouse agriculture.” Some of Little Leaf’s equipment hails from there, and head grower Pieter Slaman is a fourth-generation organic farmer from the Netherlands, who left the world’s largest indoor lettuce operation to join Little Leaf.
For their part, Sellew and Cunniff boast some equally impressive credentials. In 2006, they created Backyard Farms, a greenhouse tomato operation in Madison, Maine, that has grown to encompass 42 acres and delivers up to a million fresh tomatoes weekly, moving from source to supermarket within a day or two. Eventually, Sellew and Cunniff sold their interests to Devonshire Investors, a private equity arm of Fidelity Investments. Now they’re aiming for the same greenhouse-to-shelf speed they achieved at Backyard Farms, but Little Leaf’s operations are fully mechanized, meaning that no human hands touch the lettuce until the consumer brings the bag home.
The “assembly line” starts with seeding. Long white plastic growing trays are fitted with strips of a soil substitute known as stone wool, a growing material made from the mineral-rich igneous rock basalt. The trays are seeded by machine and fed along conveyor belts to a delivery area, where a mechanized arm swings them 90 degrees and deposits them onto a tray in the greenhouse. For three days, the germinating trays stay beneath the newly sprouted plants above them so the seeds get the shade they crave. Once they’ve sprouted, they rise up to the growing level, and as they grow, the plants progress toward the front of the greenhouse. From there, plants are conveyed to a station where an air blower ensures that all the leaves are standing upright; another machine cuts the leaves. They’re then sorted and packaged in 5-ounce bags that use 90 percent less plastic than the “clamshells” most growers use to package their lettuces. That same day, Little Leaf’s bags could appear on supermarket shelves, and potentially in someone’s salad that evening. Farm to table, indeed.
Despite its promise, Little Leaf is still a fledgling David fighting against the established Goliath of agricultural behemoths like Dole and ReadyPac, which grow billions of pounds of lettuce per year. But within three to five years, Sellew and Cunniff hope to expand Little Leaf to four times its present size, and they’re aiming to capitalize on some of their small operation’s strengths. “One thing we have plenty of here in New England is water, whereas in California, they’re draining groundwater,” Sellew says. “We just collect what falls out of the sky.” The roof at Little Leaf is pitched to collect rainwater, which is stored in a reservoir beside the building; UV rays ensure its purity before it’s used in the greenhouse. Fertigation—a combination of fertilization and irrigation—helps Little Leaf to go from seeding to harvest in fewer than 25 days. Excess water is recycled, and no pesticides are used. Additionally, because they aren’t picked by hand or grown in soil, Little Leaf lettuces arrive to the consumer clean and are less prone to the salmonella and listeria outbreaks that have plagued the agri-giants out west. And the location offers another benefit: green electricity from Devens’ nearby fields of solar panels.
As with any food product, though, the most important factor is flavor. Little Leaf currently produces five kinds of greens: arugula, red chard, green leaf, red leaf and multi-blonde (frisee). Sellew and Cunniff sampled hundreds of varieties before settling on theirs, and the arugula has an intensely robust pepperiness, the green leaf a satisfying crunch and delicate flavor. Freshness, of course, also plays a major role in taste.
In the early 19th century, a few towns away in the Merrimack Valley, some forward-thinking Bay Staters revolutionized the way cotton fabric was produced. Whether you’re more concerned with finding the freshest and best-tasting ingredients for your table or reducing your carbon footprint, it seems that Little Leaf Farms could be poised to upset the apple cart—or the lettuce cart, as the case may be. And who knows? There may come a day when Devens is cited as the birthplace of a different kind of industrial revolution: a green one. So put that in your salad and toss it.