Greenhouse to table: Lef Farms' local baby green mixes get go-ahead from grocersBy RYAN O'CONNOR
Sunday News Correspondent
April 15. 2018 12:06AM
LOUDON - Henry Huntington's family has been in the New Hampshire greenhouse business for 40 years, and before that they were farming in Connecticut.
"Agriculture has been in our blood forever," Huntington said.
Now, he and his family are operating one of the most innovative hydroponic farms in New England, and the business, lef Farms, is beginning to grow faster than the produce in its 1-acre Loudon greenhouse.
After successfully running Pleasant View Gardens in Loudon for decades with his father, Jon, and brother Jeff, Huntington said he began to think about the next generation, which led them to found lef (pronounced "leaf") Farms.
"The greenhouse and flower business has been very good and continues to be good, but we have three more families to feed, and we started looking for something to expand our growth for the family," he said.
Huntington said he conducted market research on various types of edible plants and vegetables that can be grown in greenhouses in the Northeast.
"We really looked at that as something that had market potential for us, so we did a lot of research on different crops we could grow - tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers - a lot of that is being done in the Northeast region around here and in Canada, even head lettuce, but nobody was really growing baby greens," he said.
"You know, you want a nice salad blend, you need to buy five heads of lettuce, and how long does that last?" Huntington said. He walked into a supermarket and observed that one of the largest produce displays nowadays is the salad green section.
"We saw an opportunity in that because you look at that baby green section, and over 95 percent is grown in California or Mexico," he said, "so that's something we gravitated to."
Takes root in New England
The Loudon greenhouse began operations in September 2016, and the first case of baby greens was sold in January 2017. The company has grown rapidly in 15 months, said Donald Grandmaison, sales and marketing manager for lef Farms.
"What we're trying to do is create a little bit different model here by creating a premium product for New England, grow it right here, pesticide free, and get it to markets within 24 hours of harvest," Grandmaison said. "Overall, our product quality is much higher, and the product lasts about seven to 10 days longer than California product."
With room to expand to more than 13 acres of greenhouses on lef Farms' property on Route 106 in Loudon, the company is making the most of the location, Huntington said.
"We didn't pick farmland to build greenhouses on top of; we picked an old gravel pit," he said, "so now we're using non-arable land to grow food."
Huntington said his goal is to be a major regional supplier, with further expansion beginning as soon as this summer.
"We want to keep it local," he said. "There's a finite radius that we want to deliver to from here, and once we reach that radius, then maybe there will be an opportunity to go to some other part of the country and grow a radius there as well."
But Huntington noted it was a bit of a struggle to get New Hampshire grocers to embrace the idea of a local baby greens producer and supplier.
"They're used to very large farms producing tons and tons of produce, so we were a little bit of a disrupter in the market place," he said. "They really didn't know how to handle us when we started talking to these grocery stores."
One of the first to buy in was Market Basket Produce Director Michael Maguire.
"You take a lot of these lines, and they come from California and Arizona," Maguire said. "It's all packed in, so if it's harvested on a Monday, you're very lucky to get it in on a Friday or Saturday, so consumers are saving time, for sure, and the socially concerned people appreciate local growers, and that's really been the buzz in the produce department the last five or six years."
Market Basket did a test run at four Granite State locations, and based on the success of that experiment, just expanded lef Farms presence to 21 stores.
"This is something we hope to go companywide with," said Maguire of Market Basket's 80 stores. "It's flavorful, and it's local, so it's a real feel-good item for customers."
"It's all word of mouth," said Market Basket Bedford Produce Manager Jordan Gonzalez. "Everyone who comes in here and tries it, loves it."
In addition, lef Farms recently signed a contract with Shaw's to supply its entire Northeast chain. Both the Nashua and Bedford Whole Foods locations, as well as a number of local retailers carry its products as well.
Growing lef Farms brand
Huntington said his vision for lef Farms was the same as it's always been for Pleasant View Gardens, which is creating the best product available.
"It's all about high value," he said. "If you produce a really good product, people are going buy it, and we didn't want to be just another commodity item. We wanted to be the best. We wanted to be sought out for who we were and what we were offering our customers."
With that in mind, lef Farms is growing 15 varieties of greens, including lettuce, kale, mustard seeds and bok choy. The greens are then combined into one of three exclusive blends, Smooth, Spice and Balance.
"The whole idea is we don't want to be just another spring mix in the grocery store, so by adding better blends, better varieties, we're differentiating ourselves," Huntington said. "It gives the customer something they're going to remember. Instead of, 'I want that spring mix from lef,' we're hearing them say, "I like Smooth,' or 'I like Spice,' so people are really starting to identify with it, which is cool."
In addition to an unique product line, specialized branding is a critical component to the lef Farms business model as well, said Huntington.
"Our goal is whoever sees this box, whether it's a truck driver, whether its a warehouse guy or whether its the produce guy or a customer in the store, we want to make sure they see 'lef Farms,'" Huntington said.