Grow through the snow: area greenhouses produce lettuce, tomatoes year-round

Revol Greens' new greenhouse in Owatonna. (Submitted photos)

By: James Figy
December 1, 2017

When Jay Johnson got started in agriculture as he grew up, there was a definite season for farming. He would leave his home in Conger, Minnesota, each summer to stay on a friend’s farm and help with planting and harvesting. But today, though the leaves have long fallen and snow is always on the horizon, food keeps growing inside two massive Steele County greenhouses.

The benefit of greenhouse growing versus traditional agriculture is that farmers can produce fresh, local veggies year-round, even through frigid Minnesota winters. Learning about these indoor growing methods three decades ago sparked Johnson’s interest and inspired him to open Bushel Boy in 1989.

Now Johnson is a partner in a new venture, Revol Greens. The company’s state-of-the-art greenhouse in Medford will harvest its first crop of lettuce and spinach at the end of December and begin shipping it within a 200-mile radius of the greenhouse. The five partners plan to keep the operation regional — to do for leafy greens what Bushel Boy did for tomatoes.

“At the time we started (Bushel Boy), there really weren’t greenhouse tomatoes in the stores,” he said, adding that the tomatoes shipped from warmer climates back then were ripened using ethylene gas. “Now you really can’t find an outdoor grown tomato in the store. So it has taken over, and I think with this technology, this process is going to start for lettuce.”

Johnson joined the Revol Greens team earlier this year, but  it had been in the works for a long time beforehand. The idea for the company actually came from two of the other partners, Marco Debruin and Steve Amundson.

“Marco grew up in the greenhouse business. He’s from Holland, where all of this technology comes from, and his father was a greenhouse bell pepper grower. And Steve also has an agricultural background from Blooming Prairie,” Johnson said. “…Those two really started it and came up with the idea, and they came from Ag backgrounds.”

Revol aims to be a top producer of lettuce in southern Minnesota with 5 to 10 years.

Getting Revol Greens up and running is similar to what Johnson went through with Bushel Boy, but this time, he has years of firsthand knowledge and connections in the industry.

Keith Kersten took the helm as Bushel Boy’s CEO in 2011 after Johnson departed. Kersten declined to comment for this article, citing how competitive the greenhouse-grown produce market is right now. The indoor growing industry is booming, and the hydroponics industry worldwide will continue to grow at an estimated 6.4 percent compound annual growth rate to become a nearly $14 billion industry by 2025, according to market research firm Research and Markets. The reasons why are simple: Indoor growing methods deliver fresher produce that is typically tastier and healthier while also slashing transportation costs.

“With Bushel Boy, it’s a 10 minute drive for them to get here,” said Ben Karlen, produce manager for Hy-Vee in Owatonna. “So it’s not sitting on a truck or sitting in a distribution warehouse for a couple of days. You’re not wasting fuel driving it from so far.”

Even at Bushel Boy’s furthest distribution point, the tomatoes can reach their destination within a day. A 2016 Star Tribune article discussed how Bushel Boy’s tomato plants grow fresh produce for nearly 30 weeks straight and “yield 12 million pounds of vine-on and beefsteak tomatoes” no matter the season. “We can put a tomato on your plate right here in Minnesota year-round that you know is safe, wholesome and will taste like a garden tomato in January,” Kersten told the Star Tribune.

Of course, greenhouse-grown produce is slightly different from true hydroponics. Although these methods are both indoors, hydroponic growing does not use soil. Instead plants sprout from a growing medium, such as vermiculite or rockwool. Revol Greens splits the difference and uses a hybrid method that originated in Europe.

“We’re growing in the greenhouse with a little bit of soil. We’re going to be growing on large ponds that the boards of lettuce float on,” he said. “True hydroponics wouldn’t include any soil, so we kind of have a hybrid version of traditional growing, greenhouse growing and hydroponic growing from Europe that we’re using. We’ll be the first ones using this technique for baby leaf lettuce in North America.”

While freshness is top priority, Revol Greens has made sustainability very important, Johnson said. The greenhouse uses 80 percent natural light, with the other 20 percent coming from energy-efficient LEDs that are designed for lettuce. The packaging will use one-third less plastic than other brands, and all of the water will come off the roof from rain or snow melt.

Revol’s greenhouse includes a pond to recycle runoff water to water the crops.

“We collect it in a pond for all of our water needs for the greenhouse. So that’s very sustainable,” he said. “…We’re trying to make this so it’ll last into the future.”

Karlen plans to stock Revol Greens lettuce, spinach and other products once they become available around the end of December, but until then, the store does not have access to too much locally sourced greenhouse produce. He receives a few items from growers in Iowa and other parts of Minnesota, but he wishes he had more access to local produce all year, not just over the summer.

“It’s good to keep money in the community,” Karlen said. “We have six or seven farms and orchards that we get stuff from. At the peak of the season, we have about 50 to 60 items that are local.”

With Revol Greens opening, fewer vegetables will need to come from places like California, Arizona or Mexico. Johnson is happy to see agriculture continue to bloom in southern Minnesota.

“We would like to be the largest selling brand of lettuce in this market, the 200-mile radius of Medford, within the next 5 to 10 years,” he said. “We really think it’s going to become the No. 1 selling brand here once we get going.”

James Figy is a writer based in Mankato. A native Hoosier, he has reported consumer and business news for magazines and newspapers in Minnesota and Indiana.

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