2022 is an important year for Revolution Farms.
This year, the Caledonia, Michigan-based operation struck a deal with retail chain Meijer to sell greens in all its stores across the Midwest. The deal, says co-founder John Green, expands the company’s footprint and visibility across its home region. In total, Revolution Farms greens will be sold in all 262 Meijer stores, stretching across Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin.
“Supporting local farms and carrying the freshest, most nutritious ingredients is important to us and to our customers,” said Sarah Jennings, a produce buyer for Meijer, in a news release. “As a Michigan, family company, we are committed to being good stewards of our community by not only constantly enhancing our own sustainable practices, but also by using our shelves as a platform to promote brands that share our passion.”
Currently, Revolution Farms produces various kinds of lettuce in different systems — a nutrient film technique system (NFT) for cut lettuce and a deep water culture (DWC) setup for whole-head lettuce. All the growing is done under LED lighting, produced year-round and shipped to stores within one to two days of harvesting.
“It’s different to partner with a regional retail powerhouse like Meijer and all of the power that comes with that,” says Revolution Farms president Trent Hartwig. “The brand of Revolution Farms is going to continue to take some really positive steps with this new distribution.”
“This deal demonstrates that we are the premier hydroponic farm in Michigan,” Green says. “But more importantly, Meijer gives us growth opportunity throughout the Midwest. It’s a natural progression for our company to be able to expand.”
Founded in 2018 by John Green, Trip Frey, Chip George and Brian Steketee, Revolution Farms’ leadership consists of people coming into controlled environment agriculture from other industries.
Green, for instance, started out in the craft beer business. Before Revolution Farms began, he was an executive and early investor in Founder’s Brewing Company. That company, founded in 2006, scaled up over time from a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based, smaller craft brewing company to the larger craft brewing company it is today. Although he has left craft beer behind, Green still does other work within the broader beverage category. He is an advisor for Long Drink, a Finnish alcoholic citrus soda; the chairman of Cirkcul, a flavored water company based in Florida; and the co-founder of Napa Valley-based Libby Wines, a sparking wine company.
“I always had an interest in farming,” he says, “but more importantly, an interest in pioneering concepts and pioneering businesses.” Green and George put the rest of their founding group together to get the company off the ground. That included them initially using aquaculture.
According to Green, there are also similarities between working in beer and beverages and CEA. To him, working in different spaces is key to succeeding with Revolution Farms.
“That’s the beauty of being involved with different companies and being involved with different businesses,” he says. “You can take those learnings and apply them to different industries. Most people, in my opinion, grow up thinking its best to focus on one thing and be really great at that one thing. I’ve taken the opposite because it’s this cross pollination of information.”
“To be specific,” he continues, “lettuce has historically been a commodity product. You go to the store, you buy iceberg lettuce and that’s it. But you’ve now seen this evolution where people do care about what they put in their body and do care about the nutrition and taste and buying it local. A lot of work at Founder’s in just building the brand was very similar. In the beer world, you’re constantly debuting new beers. In lettuce, it’s not just offering one or two things. You’re going to have eight different varieties of lettuce and do blends and have limited offerings.”
Green says that when he was looking to leave the craft beer industry for a new challenge, CEA appealed to him because it also provided a local product.
“The idea is that, for the most part, we can control the inputs and work with customers and buyers for big retailers to give them exactly what they want, when they want and exactly how much they want,” he says. “It’s really appealing to me that a grocer’s buyer can come to us and ‘say, we want some color in that mix’ and we can design a mix that fits their needs.” He also notes that their system is able to pivot quickly. For instance, if there’s a recall for field grown Romaine lettuce, they can move quickly to fill that need in the supply chain.
“We can do a turn in about 23 to 28 days,” he says. “If you were growing Romaine traditionally, you wouldn’t have that flexibility.”
Hartwig, meanwhile, has background in retail advertising. Before joining Revolution Farms, was the director of sales for salad dressing supplier Tessemae’s. Hartwig is also from Grand Rapids, making joining the company his own personal homecoming.
“I moved from salad dressing to salad,” he says. “I’d been following the CEA greenhouse world for the last several years as it got up and running. Tessemae’s had considered some partnerships with greenhouses in the past, which had helped me better understand that industry.”
Hartwig adds that, at Tessemae’s, they were selling ready-to-make salads in addition to their dressings. One of the problems they consistently faced was lettuce supply, so they were always looking for ways to find better lettuce for their salad kits.
“The fact that they can supply lettuce year-round is a big, big advantage,” he says.
Inside the Meijer deal
According to Hartwig, Meijer’s interest in CEA isn’t new.
“They’ve been dipping their toes into working with different greenhouses,” he says. “What happened was that Revolution Farms rose to the top in terms of [consistent] supply and on the operations side — meaning that we ship when we say we are going to ship, the product arrives on time and all of that.”
For the last year, some Revolution Farms product had been sold at a smaller number of Meijer stores under the Edible Gardens label. After that, they decided to lean in further and expanded the deal. In the deal now, Hartwig specifically notes their sweet crisp variety, labeled Deli Crisp on the clamshell customers see at the store. That product, he says, has a longer shelf life than most lettuces available and is good in both salads and on sandwiches. He also singles out romaine red leaf lettuce as key products for Meijer.
“We have a lot of other growers come in and visit our greenhouse and learn from us,” Hartwig says. “Most of the time, people that do that are very surprised to see the quality and the size of the romaine. Red lettuce is typically more finicky that others — you have to have the right light spectrum in the greenhouse world, and you can tell by looking at it is having the right light. With us, you see what you should: a very crimson, dark colored lettuce that is extremely good-tasting.”
The deal, announced publicly in May, began in March with no ramp-up period, Hartwig says. Most of the product, in fact, is shipped on trucks that Revolution Farms owns and by drivers it employs.“Meijer sent us a PO to fill all of their distribution centers,” he says. “They have four fresh distribution centers that supply their 262 stores, so we started filling those orders in March.”
“Our goal as a farm is to dominate the Michigan market and then expand out to the Midwest from there,” Hartwig continues. “We’ve been partnered with smaller format [and] local stores in Grand Rapids and SpartanNash for two or three years now. We’ve worked through a lot of those challenges that come with filling large orders. By the time we were able to earn the business with Meijer, we were in a position to handle it.”
“It validates all the hard work, the capital we’ve put forward, the mistakes we made,” Green says, “with the hope that large retail partners like Meijer and consumers would value our efforts.”
In 2018, back in the nascent days of Revolution Farms, Hartwig says the growing process was reliant on manual labor. In May of 2021, they completed their first expansion that made the growing process more automated. They are already working on a third expansion to increase capacity and have plans to begin a fourth in the next few years. That additional space, Hartwig and Green say, will allow the company to make a play for other Midwest-based grocery plans such as Kroger or Costco.
“That added about a million pounds of lettuce that we can grow in a hands-free and automated way,” he says. “That was a big check in our favor for [Meijer] — to be able to supply all of their stores. Because we made that investment, there’s a clear path to support all of their stores.”
At the same time, the company has moved to hire experienced growers to manage the day-to-day growing grind. That includes Tam Serage, Revolution Farms’ head grower who came from Shenandoah Farms (another CEA grower) in 2019 and had previous experience growing ornamental plants for wholesale.
Two other keys for Revolution Farms are tracking sell-through numbers — so not just what they sell to a store, but what actually is bought by customers — and finding ways to educate the end consumer about the benefits of buying greenhouse-grown product.
“That’s going to come with time,” Hartwig says. “The retailers are not going to immediately open up their full in-store or even digital offerings to help educate customers on why greenhouse-grown lettuce is better than field grown or why, in some cases, they should consider paying more for this local product. So, we are planning to launch campaigns with Meijer and, when we announced this deal, the release came from them. They are really excited about the long-term nature of working with us.”
As for new products, Hartwig says a key part of his job is helping Meijer and other customers understand what products best work in a greenhouse setting. Products they are working on include spinach (a crop Hartwig says every greenhouse grower is working to grow at scale), a line of herbs and salad kits.
“There are lettuce varieties that grow really well in a greenhouse setting,” he says. “And some don’t. So, it’s part of my job to educate them on what is the best product that comes out of the greenhouse and why consumers like that product and prefer that product. It’s less about Meijer saying, ‘hey, we need these specific varieties’ and more of them saying ‘consumers are looking for a greenhouse-grown product — what can you do and what can you do really well for us?’”
“We are very early in this transformation of farming,” Green says, comparing CEA to the early days of the craft beer industry when there were under 50 brands, “and I truly believe CEA is the future of farming. We are continuing to see it spread around the country, not just where traditional farming exists.”