Denver salad chain MAD Greens added a locally grown salad to the menu this summer, and while the limited-time Alferd Packer will be gone after Sept. 30, lettuce used to make it will be available year-round. This week, the company got its first produce order from Vertifresh, a local startup that uses hydroponic technology to grow lettuce and other greens in retrofitted shipping crates in a warehouse in an industrial part of the city.
Vertifresh founder and CEO William Sears got the company up and running this year, after licensing technology needed to grow lettuce and other leafy greens. The warehouse — he’s dubbed it a farmplex — holds five 20-foot-long repurposed shipping containers, each capable of turning out the equivalent of 2.5 acres of lettuce every 27 days, about half of the time of a traditional crop grown in soil, without using herbicides or pesticides, Sears said. He’s adding more of the stackable containers and expects to have between 25 and 30 in use by year-end.
“It’s all natural and locally grown,” Sears said. “That’s what people want to know today: Where did it come from, and what’s in it?”
The closed system uses 90% less water than traditional fields, doesn’t deplete soil and provides a viable way to feed consumers’ growing hunger for locally grown food. It’s also a potential way to create jobs and affordable, healthy food sources in urban food deserts, he said. Vertifresh employs six workers and expects to add about nine this year.
“It wasn’t that long ago that almost all of our food was grown in the backyard,” Sears said. “We can get back to that and take back our bad neighborhoods in the bargain.”
Sears licensed technology for use in Colorado, California and the Washington, D.C., area. I spoke with him about how the growing method works and his belief in its potential to transform the way we grow food that feeds our cities.
Is Vertifresh lettuce more expensive than traditionally grown varieties?
It’s about 50% more than they would pay for the lettuce they get in bulk out of California, but what MAD Greens did was, they said [you] can have a local salad for a slight upcharge, and people are paying it. The analogy I use is, if you could buy an iPod made in the U.S., would you pay $50 more? I would.
Fresh vegetables travel 1,500 miles before they get here. The roots are cut off, and by time they reach the grocer’s shelf, they’ve lost 40% of their nutritional value. With MAD Greens, we picked the lettuce Sunday night, and they got it Monday morning. There’s a noticeable difference. It’s like the difference between analog and HDTV — they’re both TV, but one is just crisper, cleaner and fuller.
Can you use this method to grow any sort of produce?
I can grow lettuce, basil, basically any kind of leafy green, but the lights needed to grow anything that fruits or flowers aren’t quite there yet. I’m not saying we can’t grow fruits and flowers; I’m just saying we can’t yet grow them cost effectively — the lights aren’t there yet. If not for the fact it has to make money, we could grow just about anything in these things.
What are your goals for the company?
Ultimately, the thing to do is going to be to put farmplexes in the grocery chains’ big distribution centers. It’s everyone’s dream to work with a big distributor, but if I can make the numbers work, I want to keep it local, to create jobs and to keep my hand in on the service side of the business.
Image credit: Vertifresh