Little Leaf Farms in Devens quadruples in size since 2015 opening
September 27, 2020 : Telegram & Gazette, by Jennifer Toland
Little Leaf Farms in Devens grows “the local lettuce locals love,” as the slogan on its packages proclaims, and there’s good reason why Little Leaf Farms’ green and red leaf lettuces and arugula are filling and flavoring salad bowls around the region.
“Most people, when it comes to produce,” Little Leaf Farms CEO Paul Sellew said, “they relate ‘local’ with ‘fresh.’ With produce, it’s so important because there’s a shelf life. It’s not a canned product. You want to eat it as close to the point of harvesting as possible.”
Little Leaf Farms, the best-selling greenhouse-grown lettuce in the United States, recently doubled its state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse-growing capacity from five acres to 10 acres. Since opening in 2015, Little Leaf Farms has quadrupled in size, and plans to build additional greenhouses in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
Little Leaf produces more than 2 million packages of lettuce each month, and is available in all major supermarkets in New England, including Price Chopper, Shaw’s, Stop & Shop and Big Y locations in Worcester, which is one of Little Leaf’s major markets, Sellew said. Little Leaf is also expanding distribution into New York and New Jersey.
“Slowly,” Sellew said. “Right now, we have a strong focus on New England.”
Little Leaf Farms lettuce is also on many local restaurant menus.
“I think it’s the quality of our product and it’s the response of the consumers in buying it,” Sellew said about reasons for Little Leaf’s continued growth. “When you’re in the produce industry, you have a shelf life. We cut our lettuce and we want people to eat it within 15 days. Therefore, the benefit of being local and getting it to customers within 24 hours as opposed to seven days from California is we’re giving a fresher product and I’m appreciative that the customers recognize that and continue to buy and support us as a local company.”
More than 95 percent of all U.S. lettuce is grown and processed in California and Arizona, and, as Sellew said, it can take up to a week to get it on grocery shelves in New England.
Little Leaf Farms lettuce is harvested and shipped within 24 hours.
“By being a local supplier,” Sellew said, “we’re getting products right after harvest into the markets.”
Sellew was the founder of Backyard Farms, a greenhouse tomato producer in Maine, and built his next company, Harvest Power, which is headquartered in Waltham, into the largest organics recyclers in North America.
In 2015, Sellew and Tim Cunniff, Little Leaf’s executive vice president of sales and the former EVP of sales and marketing at Backyard Farms, broke ground on the first phase of their 10-acre greenhouse space in Devens.
MassDevelopment, which was contracted to redevelop Devens, the 4,400-acre former Army base that closed in 1996, sold 14 acres of land and provided a $4.5 million loan to Little Leaf Farms toward the construction of the technologically-advanced greenhouse.
With a commitment to sustainability, Little Leaf Farms grows lettuce hydroponically, under glass, year round and the controlled environment is highly automated.
“No human hands touch the product,” Sellew said.
Little Leaf Farms’ hydroponic production method utilizes up to 90 percent less water than field-grown greens and the lettuce is grown with 100 percent captured rainwater and natural sunlight through special high-light transmission glass windows. The lettuce is produced without chemical pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.
“It’s been a very successful relationship with their continued growth here,” Jessica Strunkin, MassDevelopment’s executive vice president of Devens, said. “It’s a point of pride on a lot of fronts. I’m just incredibly impressed with the facility and their impact in Devens and the jobs they located here. Their state-of-the-art technology is a point of pride in their industry, but the fact that we host it here in Devens and they’ve been able to perfect it and expand it is (a point of pride) here as well.”
According to a recent report by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, Devens has nearly doubled the number of jobs in the economic development zone since 2012. Little Leaf Farms is part of that success.
Sellew said Little Leaf Farms employees about 80 people in jobs such as packaging, forklift and truck driving, sales and marketing.
“I think it was a great decision for us to locate here,” Sellew said.
Little Leaf Farms recently purchased 180 acres of land in McAdoo, Pennsylvania, and plans to open another greenhouse there in 2021, and in North Carolina in 2022.
“People don’t realize this, but we bring in 90 percent of the food from outside New England,” Sellew said. “We’re a believer of using technology and growing it local. Here, we’re local in New England. In Pennsylvania, we’ll be local to those markets, as opposed to building some huge facility that would service the East Coast. That’s not our approach. We really believe in local production for a local market.”
Last December, Bank of America supplied $18 million of financing for Little Leaf Farms’ expansion, to be followed by $20 million.
“We are supportive of Little Leaf Farms’ efficient growing methods, using sunlight and captured rainwater, to grow delicious lettuce that only travels locally so it remains flavorful,” Randy Mitchell, senior vice president of global commercial banking at Bank of America, said. “We believe in the company’s environmentally and socially responsible mission as they expand into new markets on the East Coast.”
Little Leaf Farms has remained vital during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic has shown us that we need strong local food systems to make our communities more resilient and improve the freshness and quality of produce,” Sellew said.
“When COVID hit,” Sellew said, “it put huge strains on our food systems and I couldn’t even imagine growing a product here in New England and logistically figuring out how to get it to California, which is 3,200 miles away, and that’s what the California guys have to do every day. It’s just more complicated, more difficult. We were able to respond quickly. Our food service business obviously went down because restaurants were closed, but groceries surged because that’s where you could buy food and we were able to respond to that. We’re so grateful for the great work that our grocery customers do in being able to supply all the food here.”
Sellew said Little Leaf Farms’ timetable for growth is right on schedule.
“We’re still very grateful for the support we’ve got from the end consumer and our grocery retail customers,” Sellew said, “and we’re basically just responding to the demand in the marketplace.”