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Lettuce grow and sell local: Little Leaf Farms keeps growth under glass

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DEVENS — The seeds are ready to be sown at Little Leaf Farms — but don’t expect to see fields of crops.

Instead, the 21st-century farm is contained inside a multi-million dollar greenhouse, which will allow the facility to grow greens year-round, providing fresh, locally grown lettuce to the New England market in an environmentally-friendly fashion.

Founders Paul Sellew and Tim Cunniff feel strongly about producing food for the region, Sellew said. New England, which imports 90 percent of its food from other regions, needs to improve its food security.

“We’re proud to start our business here in Devens and be part of the local food movement,” he said. “We’ll be making millions of bags of lettuce a year.”

Their awareness of environmental impact extends to the entire operation.

Each of those millions of five-ounce bags will use 90 percent less plastic than the common clam-shell packaging, he said. “We were troubled by using all that plastic.”

They searched for a location close to the Boston market. Their customers will be local grocery stores.

“We hope to be at the market price that is there right now,” Sellew said.

The Devens location is close to the markets — and those delicate baby greens will not have to travel the thousands of miles that California produce does. The produce will arrive at stores within a day of harvesting.

“We think we’re going to deliver a superior product,” Sellew said.

Agriculture is a water-intensive business. In California, 80 percent of human water use is for agriculture, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The state is in a drought.

Little Leaf has the water issue well in hand.

“Why not capture the water that falls on the roof?” Sellew said. “It’s clean.”

The “very, very efficient” system has another benefit. “We have no wastewater. All the water use is uptaken by the plants,” he said.

One of the considerations for locating in Devens was affordable power, Sellew said. The greenhouse will also use solar power to offset costs. LED lights and climate control will reduce power usage.

The hydroponically grown greens will not be treated with pesticides.

Mass Development provided a streamlined permitting process, which Sellew said influenced the company’s decision to move to Devens.

Little Leaf also received a $4.5 million loan from MassDevelopment, announced in a press release in April.

“High-quality, locally grown food has become both popular and prudent for the Commonwealth’s consumers,” said MassDevelopment President and CEO Marty Jones. “We’re pleased to welcome Little Leaf Farms to Devens as the community’s latest innovative business, and I applaud Paul Sellew, Little Leaf’s founder and CEO, and his Massachusetts agricultural colleagues for their commitment to the health of their customers and the environment.”

When the first phase of the greenhouse opens, it will employ around 10 people, Sellew said. The company plans to expand as the business grows.

Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.

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