At a store near you, low-mileage lettuce
A farm's oil-stingy plan cuts out the cross-country trek for Boston-bound greens
BOWDOINHAM, Maine - Ben Dobson is betting his future on 170 acres of salad greens along the shores of Merrymeeting Bay.
The 24-year-old oversees New England's first large-scale organic farm dedicated to supplying East Coast supermarkets and restaurant chains with local greens.
The start-up farm, called Locally Known, is trying to capitalize on soaring fuel costs and growing consumer demand for local, organic foods by offering fresher lettuce at competitive prices.
Most salad greens make a cross-country trek of more than 3,000 miles from California's Salinas Valley, nicknamed "Salad Bowl of the World," to get to Boston. Locally Known's produce, however, traveled just 144 miles from Maine to hit the shelves last week at Whole Foods supermarkets. And five ounces cost $1 less than the same amount of greens from California-based Earthbound Farm, a savings largely due to lower transportation costs.
"This is absolutely huge. What Locally Known is attempting has never really been done before on the East Coast to this level," said Bill McGowan, Whole Foods' produce coordinator for the North Atlantic region. "At this time, trucking greens from California, the primary grower, to the East Coast is not great from a fuel standpoint and a green-mission standpoint."
Until now, it has been nearly impossible for small local farmers to supply major supermarket chains because of costly food safety requirements, restrictions that grew more stringent following the 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach. But with an investment from a group of entrepreneurs under the age of 30, along with a $250,000 grant from Maine's agriculture department, Locally Known built a processing plant that washes, dries, and packages the greens to meet industry standards.
Much of the harvest is automated, with band saws on wheels, allowing a crew of three and machines to do the work of 50 people picking lettuce by hand. At full capacity, Locally Known expects to harvest about 60,000 pounds of greens each week, including spinach, arugula, and baby kale. The produce will supply retailers such as Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Hannafords.
"We can offer fresher greens that sit on the truck less time and can be identified with the local farm connection," said Dobson, president of Locally Known. "And we can offer it at competitive prices."
Locally Known's 170 acres pale in comparison to lettuce farms in California, which can sprawl over more than 2,000 acres. But Dobson, who grew up working on his father's farm in the Berkshires, is looking to lease land in Florida to harvest in the winter. Ultimately, he wants to build a cooperative across the region to create a sustainable year-round supply of produce for the East Coast sold under the Locally Known label.
Soaring costs for fuel and petroleum-based fertilizers used in conventional farming have made local organic produce a more competitive option for supermarket chains and restaurants, said Brook DeLorme, who at 28 is the oldest of Locally Known's five partners.
According to the market research publisher Packaged Facts, sales of locally grown foods in the United States were expected to rise from about $4 billion in 2002 to $7 billion by 2011. Locally Known said it is not trying to steal the market from local farms that supply small health food stores and nearby restaurants. Instead, it is focusing on major supermarket chains.
"More and more of the larger food services and retailers are rethinking their sourcing. They're paying more attention as fuel prices soar, and regional distribution appears to make the most financial sense," said Rich Pirog, associate director at Iowa State University's Leopold Center, which does research to develop sustainable agricultural practices.
A Leopold study conducted several years ago found that conventional produce traveled an average of 1,518 miles to reach Chicago, with grapes, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower traveling over 2,000 miles.
This month, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association hosted a "Green Restaurant Revolution" event, featuring media mogul turned restaurateur Ted Turner and local celebrity chef Todd English talking about ways restaurateurs can focus on environmental stewardship and local sustainability. English, in an interview, said local sourcing is increasingly important because of rising food prices and fuel surcharges.
"You have to be smarter, look harder for the best buys out there," English said. "And buying local just makes sense; it's fresher and you're supporting the local economy."
In Bowdoinham, Dobson is working nearly 20 hours a day, every day, to keep the farm on track. But lettuce is growing faster than expected, a salad spinner broke down last week, and bar-coding software he passed on to save money is now desperately needed. Adding to his stress is a planned visit by Maine's governor this week.
"It's a lot of chance," Dobson said, as he peered out onto his farm, acres of peppery arugula and spinach stretching into the distance. "But we think it's the right opportunity at the right time."Jenn Abelson can be reached at email@example.com.