New Hampshire's Winter Greens

A Loudon farm is leading a farming revolution
photo by jenn bakos

By February, green seems like the dream of a forgotten time. And no, pine trees don’t count. We’re entering the middle stretch of gray, brown and white, which, while exciting for those who love snow sports, is a bit of a bummer for anyone who craves veggies plucked fresh from the ground. Sure, you can head to your local grocery store to find virtually every vegetable that grows under the sun at practically any time of year, but really, we all know it’s not the same. Not even close. Henry Huntington, president and CEO of the recently opened lēf Farms, feels your pain, veggie-cravers. Recently, you may have noticed a newcomer to the bagged salad and lettuce cooler. While most of its neighbors (we’re talking 95-98 percent) come from the West Coast or Mexico, these tasty salad greens are from Loudon. As in, right here in New Hampshire.

Increasingly, says Huntington, “consumers want to know where their food is coming from. They want to make sure it’s safe and that it’s good — we thought, ‘we can do that.’”

“Buy local” is not a new idea for New Hampshire. The movement to support local farms is something that comes naturally to Granite Staters. After all, agricultural tradition runs deep here.

Lēf Farms, however, isn’t exactly your traditional farm. In fact, it isn’t even built on farmland. It’s a massive, 75,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse facility that’s located on an old gravel pit. The 14 acres of land, says Huntington, were not farmable in the usual sense. Now, he adds, they can grow up to 60 times the amount of greens on that space than you could with fields of the same size. Not to mention the fact that you can now get fresh, flavorful, locally grown greens all year round.

Greenhouses, though, require energy to run. Huntington and the lēf team hunted around the world for a system that would not only allow them to grow healthy plants, but would also be both sustainable and environmentally friendly.

In Finland — a country that knows a thing or two about dealing with long, cold, dark seasons — they found their solution. This northern country, which is bordered on one side by ocean and by Russia on the other, also deals with workforce-scarcity issues. This problem, combined with their weather challenges, led them to develop the system that was eventually modified for lēf.

The result is a sophisticated, highly automated process that won’t overly impact the environment (though neighbors in rural Loudon have voiced concerns about light pollution from the glowing greenhouses).

There’s no inefficient use of resources, fertilizers or chemicals. The hydroponic growing system uses almost 90 percent less water than traditional farming. By capturing and recycling water and nutrients, they can keep plants healthy while minimizing waste and runoff. They eschew both pesticides and GMO-seeds, and only use growing media (a replacement for the usual soil) that can be composted instead of getting dumped into a landfill. With no chemicals being used, there’s no need to pre-wash greens (and there’s no chlorine rinse, either) — in fact, all of the harvests are completely hands-free, so the only hands touching your tasty greens are yours.

photo by jenn bakos
The lēf Farms team, from left: Bob LaDue, Henry Huntington and Jeff Huntington

The carbon footprint is reduced substantially by collecting the emissions from the heating system. The CO2 produced is actually reused to help feed the plants, converting bad gas into good. On top of that, the utilization of the collected CO2means that they need to use less energy for heat and light to keep the plants growing. 

Additionally, the packaging uses 90 percent less plastic than clamshells (those big, boxy containers you see on the shelves). Plus, if your salad doesn’t have to travel 3,000 miles on a truck to get to you, then there’s a healthy amount of savings right from the get-go.

To sum it all up, “It’s a really cool system,” says Huntington.

Speaking of cool, Sales and Marketing Manager DJ Grandmaison, who holds a degree in environmental horticulture from UNH, explains that your delicate salad greens are staying nice and cold all the way from the harvest to the shelf.

“We’re the only ones that we know of that are harvesting in a cooler,” he says. Usually, given that fields are, well, outside, vegetables are harvested at whatever temperature it happens to be that day. Not a big deal if you’re eating it right away, but add to that the time West Coast or Mexican produce sits in warehouses and on trucks, then suddenly it’s not so great.

Once harvested in a cooler, the greens are kept cold, and are eventually put into packages and crates that promote airflow to keep things nice and fresh. It all means that when you open your bag of lēf Farms greens, you won’t find any sad, limp lettuce.

Behind all of this is a partnership with some serious greenery know-how.

Huntington has been in the greenhouse business for over 40 years. In that time, along with his father and brother, he established Pleasant View Gardens, one of the most successful horticulture businesses in the Northeast.

Joining him on this new, technologically advanced undertaking is Bob LaDue, vice president and COO.

LaDue, says Huntington, “is one of the best experts, if not the number one expert, in growing greens.”

With a degree in agricultural and environmental systems technology from Cornell University, LaDue has 20 years of experience with controlled greenhouse environments like lēf Farms. He’s also the one that’s been working hard to develop the perfect greens for the three types of mixes they currently offer. Like how a chef constantly tweaks and tastes a recipe before it’s put on the menu, LaDue has been tinkering with varieties of greens and how they all work together to form a particular flavor profile.

If you were picturing boring old romaine, think again. lēf Farms produces delicate greens, including mizuna, arugula, baby red Russian kale, Toscano kale, cressida, both red and green pak choi, mustard and green loose leaf. These are bagged into three mixes: Smooth, a more mild combination of leaf lettuce, pak choi, mizuna and oakleaf; Spice, a robust blend of arugula, mustard, cressida, mizuna and leaf lettuce; and Balance, a delicate and healthy blend of red and green kale.

Next time you’re in the store craving something green and leafy, do yourself a favor and put down that sad head of shrink-wrapped iceberg. Your summer-veggie-starved body will thank you.

Categories: Features