Let's eat fresh

Features - Grower Profile

lef Farms offers New England consumers creative salad mixes grown in its highly automated greenhouse.

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March 23, 2017
Karen E. Varga
lef’s retail pack contains six, 5 oz. bags of greens, such as the Spice mix seen here.
Photo courtesy of lef Farms

Pleasant View Gardens (PVG), a young plant and finished ornamentals grower, was looking for ways to use its spring production greenhouses during the off-season. About three years ago, the team began seriously discussing diversifying into produce as a way to fill the space in their Louden, New Hampshire greenhouses, and the concept of lef Farms was born. “[PVG has] continued to expand over the years, and we saw some opportunities expanding into the vegetable side of the business,” Henry Huntington, president and CEO of PVG and lef Farms, says.

However, they soon found that they needed to produce food 12 months a year for it to be worthwhile. “[But that] doesn’t help the excess space you have during the off-season at Pleasant View,” Bob LaDue, vice president and COO of lef Farms, says. Instead, the team created a complementary sister company, lef Farms, a highly automated greens grower located close to PVG.

Editor’s note: To learn how the relationship between PVG and lef Farms has mutually benefitted the two companies, visit bit.ly/2ngmzU9 for a more in-depth look.

The beginning of lef Farms

Construction on the new 1-acre greenhouse began in September 2015, it was enclosed by Christmas and crews started installing the hydroponic systems the following spring. Eventually, the production area will be expanded to 14 acres. In October 2016, the first greens seeds were sown. “We were starting to move product through the greenhouse mostly to get the machine moving and calibrated,” LaDue says. The first salad mixes were shipped out the week before Christmas 2016.

The company currently sells three mixes — Spice, Smooth and Balance — that are unique blends of about 15 different baby greens and intended for customers looking for a premium product. “[The food service and retail] partners we’re looking at understand the value of this product,” Donald Grandmaison, sales and marketing at lef Farms, says.

The mixes were developed after more than a year of trialing at PVG. They used a much smaller, non-automated version of their commercial system to ensure success on a larger scale.

“We’re trying to upscale the mixes and the varieties that we do, and be very careful about picking good-tasting and nice flavor profiles that blend well together,” Huntington says. For example, lef includes mustard and spicy arugula into the Spice mix, which “gives it a really nice subtle bite at the end of the flavor when you’re eating it,” he says.

All in a name

“Doing a startup, the things that you don’t think are the hard things, so easily end up being the hard things — like the name,” Huntington says. The company struggled to find a name that represented their unique technology and products. “We had been working with this name that I don’t even want to mention because none of us liked it, but its initials were L-E-F and we kept abbreviating that name,” he says. Finally, they decided to put a macron over the “e” to make it a long vowel sound, lef, pronounced “leaf.” While it wasn’t part of the original name, lef also ended up in their tagline “let’s eat fresh.”

Why Bob?

When it came to building a produce team, lef mainly looked to sister company PVG. The Huntington brothers, Henry and Jeff, came into leadership positions, Grandmaison moved from PVG to work on marketing, and some PVG staff was “borrowed” to get the operation up and running. They sought out consultant and Cornell-educated horticulturist Bob LaDue to lead the production side. “I’ve been working for about 20 years with leafy greens in controlled environment agriculture production,” LaDue says. He spent most of that time at Cornell University in research and development and at a demonstration facility. LaDue then transitioned from developing the technology to commercializing it. For the past five years, LaDue has worked as a leafy greens consultant for east coast growers.

“That’s how I ran into Henry and we started the discussion of where technology was and what we thought might be the future of all this,” LaDue says. However, at the time, the automation technology wasn’t quite at the point where it made sense to pursue a new leafy greens business. “The reality of it is [that] it really needs mechanization and it doesn’t make sense to be planting and harvesting with hands and scissors,” he says. “[A few years later] we reconnected and revisited that concept and we went on a world search for who had the best system for doing this process.” LaDue decided to join the team full time and became a partner in the project.

Staffing challenges

Left to right: lef Farms vice president & COO Bob LaDue; Henry Huntington, president & CEO; Jeff Huntington, vice president
Photo courtesy of lef Farms

lef Farms has eight employees on the payroll at the moment, and is utilizing others from PVG. They estimate they'll need 12 to 15 people to staff lef.

“Once we get all the bugs rolled out of the ramp-up and the operation, labor will be our No. 1 concern,” Huntington says. “It’s a real challenge to find people. We’ve placed ads, we post online [and] in newspapers. [There are] very few people walking through the door.” Knowing that labor was a challenge factored into the decision to implement the most highly automated system possible. But it created another hurdle.

“Because we’re so automated, we need more skilled labor,” Huntington says. “And we don’t know what all the jobs are going to look like.” Prospective employees are told that they could be doing anything from cleaning to operating a seeder to working with a touch-screen control or boxing up lettuce. And New Hampshire’s unemployment rate adds to the challenge — it was 2.7 percent in January 2017, the lowest in the U.S.

In addition, very few, if any of the prospective employees — even degreed students — have ever worked with this kind of technology. “There’s a real issue with how to train and develop operators for something like this,” LaDue says.

Keeping up with the market

One of the advantages that lef Farms has in its connection with PVG is access to its nearby research and development facility and the ability to continue to explore new variety possibilities. “We will continue to do extensive R&D, whether it’s variety selection, variety trials, [or] whatever we can to stay current, fresh, relevant, with what the market desire is,” Huntington says. “[lef has] the same philosophy that we have at Pleasant View — new, exciting, something different, and certainly value added.” Being able to conduct the trials offsite also means that the greenhouse space at lef can be used for its intended purpose — production.

Neighbors and competitors

lef Farms isn’t the only new produce operation in its east coast target market. However, the folks at lef see the advantages in having competition at its back door. “At the end of the day, having farms that produce food year-round doesn’t hurt the region,” Grandmaison says. “There are a lot of people to feed here, and as a region we really need to find ways to become food-independent. I think our product is unique and different, and it’s that next tier of product.”

LaDue’s perspective is that some competition can be beneficial, as it helps to motivate them to be better each day. “It certainly has pushed us to be sharper and maybe make things maybe a little harder for ourselves, but I think the customer in the end will benefit from that,” LaDue says. “Our real competition is product that’s grown in California and Arizona and shipped in or trucked across the country. We’re trying to give the customer a different, potentially better option.”

Startup challenges

Huntington says one of the biggest challenges is meeting market demand. “Can we expand fast enough to keep up with the demand?” he says. “Like every greenhouse operation, it’s extremely capital intensive so it’s a big investment.”

In addition, working with brand new, still-evolving technology can bring with it a strong learning curve. However, Huntington says that with the challenge of learning the systems comes a benefit. “The positive side of it is that we can be part of that change in the technology, [and] we can work with the developers to continue to make it better, faster and more efficient for us, which only makes us better,” he says. “The challenging side of that is that you’re learning the equipment at the same time as the people that are developing it. Things [can] go wrong that you’ve got to live through, and that can be very painful.”

One of LaDue’s main hurdles is finding products and equipment that work as well in the greenhouse as they do in open field production. “The products we create in the greenhouse are quite different than the same types of things grown out in the field,” he says. It’s a learning process on both sides.

A “Groundhog Day” greenhouse

Salad arugula and red mustard are the base of lef's spice mix.
Photo courtesy of lef Farms

lef Farms’ 50,000 square foot greenhouse system needed to be as automated as possible to minimize labor needs. “We decided on a company out of Finland called Green Automation [for our production system],” LaDue says. The proprietary nutrient film technique (NFT) gutter system automates most of the processes, from seeding to spacing the plants to moving the plants through the greenhouse to be harvesting and blending into salad mixes.

The seeder can handle almost a dozen varieties at the same time, using computer software to switch them and optimize the speed to get the right density. The gutters were specifically designed to use peat, but minimize the amount needed. The design “is unique to the farm and to the world right now,” LaDue says. The seeded gutters are then germinated in a dark, warm, humid area below the main production area before being moved up. As the plants grow, the gutters move farther apart, and by the time the plants move through the greenhouse, they should be market size and ready to be mixed and bagged. Then, the bags are packed into boxes by hand.

They chose a heavy, Nexus greenhouse that could withstand the harsh New Hampshire summers and winters, and installed fan and pad cooling, a 98 percent-efficiency boiler whose CO2 they inject into the greenhouse, and HPS lighting to offset the short winter days. According to comparison studies out of Utah State two years ago, “HPS were coming out just as efficient as the most efficient LEDs in the market at the time,” LaDue says. “It made sense to go that direction from my perspective.”

The overriding concept for the greenhouse is to keep the conditions and processes the same each day, regardless of the outside conditions, to keep production moving smoothly, LaDue says. “We want steady production 365 days a year, so we seed, sow and harvest every day of the year,” LaDue says. “It’s like the movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ We’re trying to do the same thing every day.”

A “cool” advantage

When the greens are ready to be cut, they move from the 75 degree Fahrenheit greenhouse into lef's 38 degree Fahrenheit, 10,000 square foot cooler to stop their growth.

“We’re initiating cold chain prior to harvest, and through the harvesting process and getting that core temperature down prior to bagging, [we can] almost double the shelf life we’re seeing,” Grandmaison says. “For a retailer, that can be huge.”

In addition, they use specialized salad bags. “We [designed] packaging that allows it to exchange heat and gas more efficiently [through laser-perforated films],” LaDue says. “We’ve gone to a lot of expense and time with research to design our whole packaging system to take that as far as we can go with today’s technology.”

Prevention and exclusion

When it comes to pests, lef Farms aims to prevent, exclude or, if necessary in the future, utilize beneficial insects. LaDue says that their goal is to avoid the use of pesticides. “I think it’s an important tool in agriculture and it’s necessary, but at the same time if there’s a way to not use it, I’m all for checking it out,” LaDue says.

One of his best tools for preventing pest problems is growing the crop quickly, which is why they chose fast-growing baby greens. In addition, the system automatically moves the crops through different areas as they grow, which helps deter pests, as do the screens on their greenhouse vents.

Looking forward

While lef Farms is in its beginning stages, the team is motivated by the progress they’ve made so far, and excited for the years to come. “We’re part of a revolution here in terms of agriculture, and I think it’s neat to be a successful part of it,” Huntington says.

“I’ve been working in this direction for my [entire] career and this is the big one for me,” LaDue says. “I’m excited. It feels like in my little world, we’ve been talking about what Henry just said for 20 years, but now it feels like it really is happening.”