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Lef Farms: Innovation through automation

Sunday News Correspondent

April 15. 2018 12:06AM

Market Basket in Bedford is one of 21 locations to feature lef Farms baby greens mixes in its produce section. (RYAN O'CONNOR/SUNDAY NEWS CORRESPONDENT)

LOUDON - Recognizing New Hampshire's low unemployment rate, Henry Huntington said he sought a business model for lef Farms that leaned heavily on automated technology.

"It's hard to hire for agriculture, and if it wasn't automated, it would be an extremely manual process and then you can throw the economics out the window," he said.

Of course, any sound operation still needs boots on the ground, and lef Farms is no different. In addition to employing 12 full-time workers, Huntington partnered with Bob Ladue, who became vice president and chief operating officer for the company.

"He had more than 14 years of greenhouse experience with hydroponically grown lettuce, so he was probably considered one of the top experts in the country," said Huntington.

"He just happened to be from this area and wanted to settle down, so we decided to bring him on as a partner."

Together, Huntington and Ladue identified, purchased and implemented an innovative new hydroponic growing system from Finland.

"Because of labor costs, lack of labor and their climate and location, they've been forced to grow a lot of vegetables in greenhouses, so they developed this system over there about five years ago, and now they're trying to export it to the U.S.," said Huntington.

"We're pretty much the first ones who brought it in over here."

The technology is so immature, he said, that they're receiving daily updates and upgrades.

The greenhouse uses a series of hundreds of thin gutters that are packed with a soil media and then uses a highly concentrated nutrient-rich solution to help the plants to grow.

As the company's leafy greens spring up, the gutters are slowly moved forward throughout the greenhouse before being harvested, packaged and distributed.

In addition, the waste stream is almost entirely biodegradable, the water used is recyclable, and the facility is 100-percent pesticide free, one of the additional reasons Huntington and Ladue chose to grow baby greens.

"The nice thing about baby greens is that it's a very quick crop," Huntington said.

"From one end to the other is about 14 days, so the speed of that is usually faster than the life cycle of your typical insect that would be a pest, so even if some insects got in here, they'd be gone before they could reproduce."

And the operation continues to evolve and grow.

"Little old New Hampshire has one of the most sophisticated growing systems and greenhouses in all of the country," Grandmaison said. "It's pretty remarkable."

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