There’s nothing new about growing produce for New England markets inside a big greenhouse, but the huge expansion coming to Loudon’s high-tech hydroponic operation reflects not only the industry’s growth but also this unavoidable fact: California is a long way away.
“New England is the largest market for indoor-farmed salad because this corner of the U.S. is furthest away from what we call the salad bowl on the West Coast,” said Abby Prior, chief commercial officer for New York-based Brightfarms, which recently purchased Lef Farms in Loudon. “We want to replace the long-distance supply chain salads that come from California, Arizona, and Mexico. Consumer demand for fresher, local products is so strong that the industry cannot keep pace with the demand. Our farms are fully sold out, and many of our competitors are, too.”
Lef Farms, pronounced Leaf, opened its hydroponic, automated greenhouse in 2017 on a former gravel pit on Route 106. Brightfarms, which owns six similar greenhouses throughout the East Coast, hopes to triple its size by the end of 2022 and eventually expand the amount of growing space from 1 acre to 14 acres, Prior said. Up to 70 people could be working there when all is said and done.
While attention often focuses on so-called vertical farms, which depend entirely on artificial light to grow crops, most of the production and investment involves greenhouses that use sunlight as well as supplemental lights to speed growth, such as Lef Farms.
These aren’t traditional greenhouses, however. Crops are almost always grown hydroponically, in a liquid medium rather than soil, and processed with automation. This requires large up-front expenditure compared to a traditional farm, which is why the industry is focused on niche, high-cost products such as baby greens for salads.
“As the farms get larger and growers start to reap economies of scale, you’re going to see offerings that encompass the full salad category,” said Prior. “In in time, you’ll also see a wide variety of other products.”
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