By Anne O’Connor
DEVENS — “It’s about the product. You’ve got to deliver a better product.”
Little Leaf Farms CEO Paul Sellew grows and sells lots of produce. For the past year, thousands of clamshell boxes leave the 2.5 acre greenhouse every day. The lettuce inside, never touched by human hands, is bound for 725 stores within a day’s drive of Devens.
Sellew and Executive Vice President Tim Cunniff led a tour of the soon-to-expand greenhouse for U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas and state officials on July 10.
“It’s a sea of lettuce,” Cunniff said. The food is pesticide free, non-GMO and sustainably grown.
That ocean of produce is grown in the most technologically-advanced greenhouse in the world, Sellew said. No municipal water is used; the water for the plants is gathered from the greenhouse roof.
The recirculating system needs only 27 inches of rain each year. Even during the drought last year, the greenhouse did not need any extra water.
LED lights and a gas condensing boiler are highly efficient. Different temperature zones are maintained throughout the building. Most of the greenhouse is kept 72 degrees. The temperature plunges in the packing area to the point where the employees wear winter clothing.
Rows of lettuce at waist height extend back to the horizon, or so it seemed. Every few minutes, software-controlled machinery pushed the closest row of 27-day old plants to a conveyor belt to be cut and cooled.
Furthest away, a temperature-regulating mist fell on the babies, rows of seeds and seedlings. The adolescents were in the middle distance, not getting such tender treatment. “You’ve got to slap them around a little bit,” Cunniff said.
As a row of adult plants was harvested, a row of seeds went in.
The adult plants slide into the packaging area where they are fluffed up by air, cut and packaged. In their almost a month of life, none of those little leafs are touched by human hands or pesticides.
After they are stuffed in the box, the greens encounter a human. A worker closes the lid by hand. Another places the clamshells into cardboard shipping boxes.
The system is the cleanest in the industry, Cunniff said.
The produce does not have to be washed and spun dry, what other growers call triple washed, Sellew said. Saved from rough handling and excess moisture, the sell-by date is 15 days after the lettuce leaves the farm.
It is good for another ten days after that, he said.
When it comes to delivering a better product, Little Leaf listens to its customers. The same lettuce blends, green, red and arugula will be grown in the new 2.5 acre greenhouse that should be finished within a year, Sellew said. The land is already graded.
After hearing from produce managers that the bags the lettuce came in were hard to display, Little Leaf switched to clamshell boxes, Cunniff said. Sales increased between 300 and 400 percent.
The visitors were wowed.
There are over 900 agriculture businesses in her district, Tsongas said. “It’s really remarkable.”
They spur the economy and add jobs, while supporting the region’s heritage, she said.
She left, holding a box of Little Leaf Farms lettuce close. “I’m going from here to the plane,” she said. Her hope was to get the produce back to Washington.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge became a convert to the sustainably grown lettuce by the end of his first visit to the greenhouse. People expect fresh food and the lettuce that Little Leaf sends to grocery stores is farmers’ market quality, he said.
A fellow legislator did not need convincing. “I’m not a convert,” said state Rep. Jen Benson. “I’ve been eating lettuce for a long time.”
Both held boxes of the greens as they left.
Little Leaf Farms employs about 17 people and runs seven days a week. Sellew, who lives in Carlisle, credited the simplified permitting process in Devens for his decision to locate there.
The state has been very supportive of the greenhouse, he said. A loan through MassDevelopment, the quasi-governmental agency that runs Devens, was essential for the business.
Little Leaf Farms, with millions of dollars invested, is on track, he said.
Consumers want sustainably-grown local produce, but it has to look and taste good, the CEO said. Little Leaf Farm lettuce uses the latest technology to deliver a simple food.
The company does get one complaint, he said. Customers want more lettuce in the store. The new greenhouse should help with that.
Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter @a1oconnor.