Revolution Farms is using an innovative new system to grow greens for salad mixes using substantially less labor, land and water.
Revolution Farms is set along a back road amid an agriculturally-rich area of West Michigan, with fertile black soil and a gentle breeze coming off Lake Michigan on a typical summer’s day. What makes this farm live up to its name, though, is the fact that the indoor facility can grow high quality greens throughout the year, including that long stretch of time when the region is hit hard by snow, ice and cold and the flip side of sizzling hot days and potential droughts.
The Caledonia, Mich., hydroponic farm was launched in 2018 by a group of investors including current CEO (and the aptly-named) John Green, who recognized the need to provide customers with fresh, locally produced salad greens on a year-round basis. Today, Revolution Farms produces nearly 24,000 pounds of non-GMO greens a week between the two phases of its facility.
“We grow lettuce every day, and that’s the big challenge of being able to grow in Michigan. When you think about conventional soil farming, we are using much less pesticides, much less water and much less land and can grow about nine times the total amount per square meter. And having a controlled environment allows us to deliver safe products to the consumer," company President Trent Hartwig told Progressive Grocerduring a recent tour. In fact, Revolution Farms produces its haul using 90% less water, 90% less land and 95% fewer miles for transport than traditional lettuce-growing operations.
Meijer is one retailer using Revolution Farms' hydroponically salad greens for an array of prepackaged salads and mixes.
With multiple market trends converging, demand is strong for hydroponic greens grown in a more sustainable way and without the worry of runoff from nearby dairy or cattle farms that may harbor harmful pathogens. In May, Revolution Farms teamed up with Meijer, based in nearby Grand Rapids, to provide its hydroponically grown products in all 262 stores across the retailer’s Midwest footprint. The hydroponic business can deliver greens to Meijer within a day or two of harvest to ensure a longer shelf life and fresher taste.
“Supporting local farms and carrying the freshest, most nutritious ingredients is important to us and to our customers,” said Sarah Jennings, produce buyer for Meijer. “As a Michigan family company, we are committed to being good stewards of our community by not only constantly enhancing our own sustainable practices, but also by using our shelves as a platform to promote brands that share our passion.”
From Seed to Package
Revolution Farms' hydroponic facility is set up to meet demand for both whole head lettuce and cut lettuces sold to grocers and foodservice operators.
The first phase of the indoor farm includes a seed and propagation area in which non-GMO seeds are plugged into containers filled with peat moss and then grown for 10 to 20 days. From there, the seedlings and young plants are moved into a greenhouse for full maturity using the deep water culture (DWC) growing method and later transported to a packing room. Some of the greens grown in this part of the operation will be used for new products available at Meijer, including Revolution Farms’ lettuce boats, whole leaf romaine and sweet crisp deli leaf whole head lettuce.
Revolution Farms opened in Caledonia, Mich., in 2018.
“From our standpoint, there is a limited amount of space in a store for heads of romaine, and cut lettuces are in a separate area than whole lettuce. We saw an opportunity to take the same product and treat it differently in harvesting and put it in a different section of the store,” Hartwig explained.
The second phase of the facility that was added in 2021 reflects an innovative way of growing lettuces for salad kits. “This is very unique and different,” said Hartwig.
Here, automation is front and center from seed to harvest, maximizing efficiency while drastically reducing the need for the same amount of labor as outdoor lettuce farms or even other greenhouses. The equipment from Finnish manufacturer Green Automation includes a moving gutter system that transports narrow trays of seed-filled soil to an expansive growing area in a light-filled, controlled climate room. Revolution Farms grows several lettuces for cut use here, including different romaine and crisp varieties chosen for their taste, crunch, texture and color. Once mature and ready for harvest, the salad greens are moved into a chopping area and then transported for mixing and packaging in another part of the facility. The company will soon use a different type of plastic packaging based on marketplace interest and demands, according to Hartwig.
As the company works with retailers including Meijer and another locally-based grocer, SpartanNash, among others, Hartwig affirmed that the market remains ripe for lettuces grown in this contemporary and ultimately more sustainable way. “The data shows that consumers are not as thrown off by inflation for these kinds of products,” he declared, adding that once consumers try fresher, crisper greens, they have a new standard compared to salad greens procured from far-away farms that do not have controlled growing environments. “In this country, people have become accustomed to eating bad lettuce. You have to use salad dressing to drown out the taste, which is not the case here.”
Meanwhile, the company strives to be a good neighbor in the West Michigan area, donating at least 1% of the high quality finished greens it grows to local food pantries and working with a local livestock farmer to use leftover greens and soil that would otherwise go to compost or waste.