How lēf Farms is Leaping Into the Leafy Greens Market

Baby Greens at Lef FarmsEven the most successful and innovative companies will always be looking for ways to expand and grow. Such is the case with Pleasant View Gardens in Loudon, NH, which has a rich 40-year history as a propagator of young bedding plants and one of the founders of the Proven Winners brand.

About five years ago, Pleasant View owner Henry Huntington saw that sales of bedding plants were flattening. At the same time, he was also looking for a way to make better use of Pleasant View’s greenhouses in the off season, and in particular he wanted a crop that could be turned quickly to fit into this tight off-season window.

For assistance, Huntington turned to Bob LaDue, who had spent 13 years at Cornell University researching controlled environment agriculture production before transitioning into an independent consulting role.
Huntington and LaDue quickly settled on baby greens and salad mixes as an ideal seasonal crop. Just as quickly, however, they also recognized the untapped market potential of baby greens as a year-round crop, as well as the investment they would need to make for this new venture to be successful.

Bob LaDue and Henry Huntington, Lef Farms
lēf Farms visionaries Bob LaDue and Henry Huntington. Photo credit: Sharon Huntington

The result of this brainstorming was the creation of lēf Farms, which is run as an independent business under LaDue’s management as Vice President and COO, along with Donald Grandmaison as Sales and Marketing Manager. Huntington is still the CEO of each company, and while lēf Farms is considered a pure start-up, Pleasant View Gardens and lēf Farms continue to share business relationships and ideas with each other.

lēf Looks Abroad for Its Automation

One thing LaDue knew from his experience in baby greens was that it is very labor intensive and needs to be mechanized.

“We immediately started looking for technology breakthroughs to make it more automated,” LaDue says. “In the last five years, companies around the world have developed systems for this, so we started traveling and looking at what they were using.”

It was a challenging process at first, because much of the technology was so new that the companies making it weren’t advertising or disclosing anything about it. LaDue says the company considered developing its own production line, but eventually selected a system from a Finland-based company called Green Automation, which had been around for about 10 years, mostly developing nutrient film technique (NFT) technology using a moving gutter system.

“Their family business is in greenhouses, but the younger family members were engineers involved in the automotive industry,” LaDue says. “They started putting their experience in automotive technology to work helping their families, and ultimately made a business out of it.”

Green Automation had just developed a way to grow baby greens on miniaturized gutters, using a chain of conveyors with centralized locations for feeding, seeding, and cutting in a head house concept.

“We went to see it at other operations, and ultimately chose it because we felt Green Automation was more mature in its thinking, particularly in the harvest end of things,” LaDue says. “We worked with them on different concepts, and they fixed things we didn’t like about the system. We were able to develop our own customized solution, and while there was a definite learning curve at the beginning, we knew we would eventually be able to create something unique to our own needs.”

One of the things lēf Farms adapted in the system was the growing medium it was designed for.

“They were using rockwool, which has its pros and cons,” LaDue says. “Seedlings don’t like it much, it is expensive to ship, and it’s not easy to get rid of when it’s done being used.”

LaDue preferred a system that could use a peat-based growing medium that could be composted instead of heading to a landfill, and Green Automation was once again willing to adapt its process.

“It allowed us to use machinery that we had already been using at Pleasant View,” LaDue says. “We were producing crops in a 120 cubic-foot bale, and it makes dealing with waste and composting roots very easy to handle. We customized their baby greens system to use a peat-based medium, and it’s working well.”

So well, in fact, that lēf Farms is able to produce 12 to 15 varieties of lettuces and other greens with two days in germination and an average of 15 days in the light before it is harvested. The entire facility encompasses 50,000 square feet of lighted greenhouse operation, with a 60-foot by 160-foot germination area underneath.

“We aren’t sacrificing light for germination,” LaDue says. “It’s a double layer system, and everything moves automatically up into the greenhouse after germination.”

Baby Greens at Lef Farms feature
One of the main goals at lēf Farms is to deliver baby greens and mixes into stores within 24 hours of being harvested.

Maintaining the Cold Chain

Perhaps the biggest innovation that lēf Farms was able to adopt was the cooling process from harvesting to packaging.

“One of the big flaws I’ve seen in my years of consulting is that products are typically harvested in the greenhouse, or taken to a head house where they’re harvested, at the same temperature they were grown in,” LaDue says. “When you put it in a clamshell or bag it, you lock in that warm temperature, and it can take days for the core to chill down to a proper holding temperature. To get maximum shelf life, you need to get the heat out of the product as fast as possible.”

lēf Farms invested in a concept that helps the team mix, blend, and pack in a walk-in cooler. From there, packaging is done using an open-box design to efficiently remove the heat, with special plastic film laminates that are laser perforated to allow for air exchange without losing moisture.

“I’ve been to a lot of operations and have never seen anything like this,” LaDue says. “The product is precooled before it goes into the package, and the packaging design is made to post-cool it and remove heat before it leaves the loading dock.”

The end result, Grandmaison says, is a longer shelf life.

“Because we bring the crop into a cooler and initiate the cold chain prior to harvest, then harvest and bag it under cold temperatures, it doubles the shelf life of the product,” Grandmaison says. “We want to harvest today and get it into stores tomorrow. When we do this, the consumer has 15 more days to use it, which translates to less food waste and more confidence from our customers that they are getting a higher quality product that will exceed their expectations.”

Building a Higher Standard for Consumers

lēf Farms currently has two primary customer bases: local supermarket chains and restaurant/foodservice operations. “Local” is the key word, as Grandmaison emphasizes that lēf Farms is looking for companies familiar with working with local growers and developing programs around those growers. The farm-to-table movement is especially strong in New Hampshire, and the goal at lēf Farms, according to Grandmaison, is to position its salad mixes as unique in comparison to what a consumer can buy from California or even other suppliers in the Northeast.

There is often both a higher standard and a higher cost attached to locally grown produce, Grandmaison says, which means consumer education is critical.

“We’ve done well at educating our distributors and retail partners. By highlighting what makes our farm different, we can focus on value rather than price,” Grandmaison says. “For years we have come to learn that food should be cheap, especially salad greens. But the market wants something different, something healthy, nutritious, and most importantly, grown nearby. More and more people are willing to invest in that.”

Because lēf Farms is producing an edible product, there is also the food safety element to consider.

“We became GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified, which is important when you’re selling to any restaurant, and we also know we’ll be large enough that Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules will apply to us, so we’re gearing up for that as it evolves,” LaDue says.

A lot of the requirements involved in GAPs and FSMA overlap, so lēf Farms was quick to put many of these practices in place early in the process, from special polymer flooring to stainless-steel shelving and floor space designs to reduce the threat of bacteria.

“We are trying to stay ahead of the game as it evolves,” LaDue says.

Grandmaison also notes that food safety compliance has been key to much of the set-up at lēf Farms.

“The faster and more efficiently we can produce greens with less human contact, the more greens we can produce per square foot that are healthy and have a great chance to be clean and free of foodborne illnesses,” Grandmaison says. “Eliminating hands on the crop reduces the risk of foodborne illness significantly, which means we can then hone our system and keep our team focused and fine-tuned.”

lef Farms Retail BagsFlexibility is Key to Future Success

One big lesson that the team at lēf Farms has learned along the way is that there will be a constantly evolving process of adapting the technology.

“The machinery we are using is very customized, and in a few cases it might be the first time the equipment has ever been used, at least for our purposes,” LaDue says. “This means some of it will be replaced quickly, and we’ll also quickly need to learn how to use it so we can train our staff accordingly.”

As lēf Farms continues to grow, LaDue says the key to its success will be to not oversell what it is doing.

“We should eventually be able to produce 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of baby greens a day,” LaDue says. “As we get closer to this goal, we are tweaking things like seed densities and cutting heights, which should help us maximize our yields.”

Further down the chain, Grandmaison is staying on top of trends in the industry, and looking for areas where lēf Farms could potentially develop custom blends. One of the benefits of lēf Farms’ connection to Pleasant View Farms is that it has access to Pleasant View’s research and development facilities, as well as its breeder network.

“We work with a lot of seed companies and breeders on new varieties, and we can bring potential customers into Pleasant View’s facility and show them anything new on the market,” Grandmaison says. “Since it only takes us 14 days to produce a product, if there’s an opportunity to create a custom blend, we have the ability to make this happen quickly. Our mission is to introduce a new food experience, something different that keeps salad lovers engaged and captivated.”

How lēf is Marketing Its Blends

Not only is lēf Farms growing its baby greens year-round, it’s also growing its online presence with the launch of its new website, Lef-Farms.com.

The new site carries a clean, contemporary look that gives visitors all the information they need in small, bite-size portions, from short news items to where to find lēf greens, to quick summaries about each product, to the story of how the company started.

Visitors can also learn about the many benefits of hydroponic gardening, while better understanding what it means to be “farm to table.” The site also provides a summary of the key staff members at lēf that keep the operation moving forward day in and day out.

The site’s product section covers the unique blends lēf has to offer: Smooth (a blend of leaf lettuce, pac choi, mizuna, and oakleaf), Spice (a blend of arugula, mustard, cressida, mizuna, and leaf lettuce), and Balance (a blend of slightly sweet and delicate red and green kale).

For potential suppliers, the new site reviews the various markets where lēf baby greens can be found, including the grocery and hospitality markets, as well as educational facilities, institutions, and restaurants.

The site also gives retailers a quick look at some of lēf’s unique merchandising tools, from packages to signs, banners, and floor graphics.

Topics: , , ,

Leave a Reply

More From Vegetables...

August 1, 2017

39 New Vegetables and Herbs for 2018

New vegetable and herb introductions for 2017 offer unique shaped fruits, distinctive foliage, intense flavors, improved disease resistance, high yields, and more. Here are 39 new vegetable and herb varieties to consider for your product mix in 2018.

Read More
International Tomato Congress

May 30, 2017

Learn How to Improve Your Greenhouse Tomato Production at the International Tomato Congress

Greenhouse vegetable growers looking for practical information on how to produce better tomatoes should make plans to attend the International Tomato Congress, which takes place July 26-28 in León, Guanajuato, Mexico.

Read More
Gherking Cucumber PanAmericanSeed feature

March 31, 2017

How to Choose Greenhouse Vegetables That Will Captivate Your Customers

Here’s what you need to know to be successful in selecting and merchandising greenhouse vegetables for fresh produce.

Read More
Latest Stories

August 1, 2017

39 New Vegetables and Herbs for 2018

New vegetable and herb introductions for 2017 offer unique shaped fruits, distinctive foliage, intense flavors, improved disease resistance, high yields, and more. Here are 39 new vegetable and herb varieties to consider for your product mix in 2018.

Read More
International Tomato Congress

May 30, 2017

Learn How to Improve Your Greenhouse Tomato Production …

Greenhouse vegetable growers looking for practical information on how to produce better tomatoes should make plans to attend the International Tomato Congress, which takes place July 26-28 in León, Guanajuato, Mexico.

Read More
Baby Greens at Lef Farms feature

April 3, 2017

How lēf Farms is Leaping Into the Leafy Greens Market

Recognizing a unique opportunity, Pleasant View Gardens partnered with a leafy greens expert to develop a cutting-edge operation focused on producing the freshest baby greens and salad mixes.

Read More
Gherking Cucumber PanAmericanSeed feature

March 31, 2017

How to Choose Greenhouse Vegetables That Will Captivate…

Here’s what you need to know to be successful in selecting and merchandising greenhouse vegetables for fresh produce.

Read More
Aspabroc Broccolini Sakata Vegetables Feature

March 22, 2017

Growing Tips for Sakata Vegetables’ ‘Aspabroc’ Br…

‘Aspabroc’ resembles a broccoli raab with an asparagus stem, has a mild taste, and requires little growing space.

Read More
'Nagoya' Flowering Kale (Sakata Ornamentals)

November 16, 2016

Sakata Expands Its Access To Patents For Variety Develo…

Sakata Seed recently joined the Vegetable Licensing Platform, which will help the company create new varieties that address challenges such as disease resistance and bring better quality products to market.

Read More
Pleasant View Gardens Savor Edibles

July 22, 2016

Pleasant View Gardens Targets Millennials With Savor Ed…

Taking something as ubiquitous as vegetables and herbs and giving it a fresh new look is no easy task, but Pleasant View Gardens took on the challenge with extensive research and creative marketing.

Read More

July 19, 2016

17 New Vegetable Intros For Greenhouse Production

New varieties of edibles introduced at 2016 California Spring Trials offer something for every type of gardener, from the beginning do-it-yourselfer to the hardcore, heirloom-only type. Check out some of the new varieties we saw at Spring Trials this year that will be available for retail in 2017.

Read More
One Earth Edibles From Peace Tree Farm

July 16, 2016

How To Capture Your Share Of The Edibles Market

At Peace Tree Farm, One Earth Edibles represent healthy living on a healthy planet.

Read More
NatureSweet

July 5, 2016

NatureSweet And Ganfer Partner On Tomato Production

The partnership will add more than 250 acres of NatureSweet greenhouse tomato production over the next three years.

Read More
Tomato Congress Logo

June 15, 2016

International Tomato Congress In Mexico Will Focus On G…

The event, which takes place in San Luis Potosi from July 20-22, will feature discussions on production strategies, cost management in protected structures, and optimizing your greenhouse environment.

Read More
National Garden Bureau California Vegetable Summer Trials

May 26, 2016

California Summer Vegetable Trials In August Will Cover…

The National Garden Bureau is once again organizing summer vegetables trials this August in California, giving attendees the opportunity to visit with several breeding companies.

Read More

April 5, 2016

9 Cool New Edibles Provide The First Taste Of The 2016 …

Let’s face it — edibles are all the rage, as gardeners of all generations get ready to test their green thumbs and culinary skills. The promise of a juicy strawberry or a ripe tomato, fresh from their own garden, makes their mouths water. According to a recent report by the National Gardening Association, food gardening in the U.S. is at its highest levels in more than a decade, with 35% of all households in America (more than 42 million) growing food at home or in a community. The low-maintenance, new varieties coming on the market are making food gardening better and easier than ever, and providing opportunities to bring new foodies into the garden center. Breeders displaying at the 2016 California Spring Trials (CAST) have provided a sneak peek at some of the edibles that will be ready for retail in 2017. Check out the delicious new fruit and vegetable varieties […]

Read More
NGI-SunPatiens-Compact-Hot-Coral-Sakata

March 23, 2016

P. Allen Smith Says SunPatiens Are Hero Plants For Cons…

Plants that ensure consumer success with disease resistance bred into their genetics, and ease of use in a variety of conditions, are heroes for gardeners, especially beginners, and they should be celebrated and supported to promote gardening success and interest. These are the messages the award-winning designer, gardening, and lifestyle expert P. Allen Smith wants the horticulture industry to know, with the recent announcement of his expanded partnership with Sakata Seed. In an exclusive interview with Greenhouse Grower, P. Allen Smith describes his expanded partnership with Sakata Seed to promote SunPatiens and why the now 10-year-old series helps both novice and expert gardeners to be successful. Smith also collaborates with Sakata to promote the HomeGrown Collection of vegetables. SunPatiens Set Consumers Up For Success, Smith Says As a plantsman first, Smith has extensively trialed SunPatiens in his gardens at Moss Mountain Farm in Little Rock, AR, and says he is […]

Read More
This row of tomatoes with large fruit load is part of an on-going project with DeRuiter Seed Co

November 20, 2015

What To Consider When Growing Vegetables Under Cover

Some critical points to think about before adding vegetables to your crop mix include market, crop choice, and labor.

Read More
Pleasant View Gardens Savor Pot

November 16, 2015

Pleasant View Gardens Launches New Savor Edibles And Fr…

This new line of nearly 150 vegetables and herbs is aimed at Millennials and will be available to garden centers in 2016.

Read More
Increased customer demand led Good Harvest Farms to add hydroponic lettuce in 2000

November 13, 2015

Ornamental Greenhouse Growers Must Do Their Homework Wh…

Good Harvest Farms began growing hydroponic lettuce 15 years ago. Owner Chris Powell says having a reliable market and emphasizing quality are critical.

Read More
To offer consumers an attractive crop, Local Appetite uses high tunnels to grow cherry tomatoes

November 13, 2015

Vegetable Grower Makes The Move To Protected Agricultur…

High tunnels have helped one Alabama grower produce high-quality crops year-round while providing a significant return on investment.

Read More