It’s not an easy decision to move into finished produce production when your greenhouse business’ main focus has always been on ornamental plants. However, there have been a few companies that have proven that it can be both possible and profitable.
“At Pleasant View, we’ve always been looking for opportunities,” says Henry Huntington, PVG president and CEO. “Ten years ago, we started hearing about producing vegetables in greenhouses and seeing some opportunities in that [because] a local food movement [had] started.” The forty-year-old young plant liner and finished plant growing operation was looking for a way to become a year-round business. They wanted to stay in the greenhouse market, Huntington says, but diversify their product offering to ensure the company's future as the new generation comes into leadership roles.
But growing 12 months out of the year was no easy feat, given the harsh winters and hot summers of its Louden, New Hampshire location. Originally, the plan was to grow the produce in the ornamental greenhouses during the off-season. “We’ve got this great seasonal business, but we have empty greenhouses for four to five months of the year,” Huntington says. However, after researching their options, the team discovered that, in order to be successful, their new operation would have to be in continuous production. And for that, they would need new greenhouses for the greens business.
After several years of planning, PVG officially created a sister company, lef Farms, a sustainable, highly automated greens operation in 2015 (Look for an in-depth profile of the business in an upcoming issue of sister publication Produce Grower). After completing its first 1-acre greenhouse and fine-tuning the automation systems, lef sold its first crop in December 2016. lef Farms will eventually be expanded to nearly 14 acres of growing space.
PVG is located about seven miles from the new lef greenhouses and has been instrumental in making lef a success. “The idea was to [have] a synergetic, synergistic relationship and to be able to benefit from each other,” Huntington says. Here are seven ways lef Farms and PVG will mutually benefit from their strong ties.
1. Administrative support.
Because of PVG’s close proximity to lef, the companies have been able to share certain administrative resources. While lef does its own hiring, the greens grower can still utilize PVG’s employee and safety manuals and training information as a starting point. “We’ll be able to lean on Pleasant View for a lot of that,” says Huntington. “[lef Farms] is operating as a completely separate company, but to be able to share some resources where we can is a nice benefit to having that bigger brother over there to help us out.”
2. Staffing assistance.
As lef determines how many and what type of staff it will need through its initial months and as it expands into its full growing area, it has been able to “borrow” some Pleasant View employees to supplement the core lef staff. Currently, there are eight lef Farms-only employees in addition to the PVG staff on loan. lef will eventually need about 15 employees to run the entire operation, which may be a challenge with New Hampshire’s low unemployement rate — the lowest in the U.S. at just above two percent.
3. Strategy lessons from the pros.
PVG is an established, experienced company that has been in existence for 40 years, with many longtime employees. “There’s a lot of leadership [and experience] there that we can really draw from,” says Bob LaDue, lef Farms vice president and COO. “I know from the strategy [aspect], if I need help or I need to ask questions, [PVG is] an absolutely fabulous resource for us that way. There’s a lot of communication that goes back and forth, and strategy that happens between the two companies.”
4. Technological tradeout.
lef Farms’ production systems incorporate automation and other new technologies at every turn and at a much higher level than what’s currently used at PVG. As such, PVG has the opportunity to learn more about these systems and determine whether it would make sense to incorporate any of them into its production systems. “We’ve stepped out into some newer technologies, and Pleasant View can watch us closely [to see if they] will be applicable to their situation,” LaDue says. “But they can let us work the bugs out of it first and get a real understanding of what it is, how to make it work. I think there will be some real technical benefits going forward with this relationship.”
One of the potential technical benefits is in lighting. lef Farms is using supplemental lighting for those times when the natural lighting in the greenhouse isn’t enough. “The lighting that we use here at lef is way more advanced than what we’re [using] at Pleasant View, so I see [how it could be] a huge benefit to teach us how to use supplemental lighting based on [what’s being done at lef],” Huntington says.
5. Production improvements.
LaDue’s background in controlled environment agriculture and leafy greens brings a new perspective to the table, one that Huntington hopes will translate into PVG learning more efficient production methods as well. “While we do a lot of precision growing at Pleasant View, it’s nowhere near the precision growing that we have to do [at lef] because we [have] such a narrow product line,” Huntington says. “We need to be efficient and produce at the highest levels of productivity [at lef, and] much more precise [than at PVG]. Those are resources that Pleasant View can use from Bob.”
6. R&D advantages.
One of the more significant advantages of working with sister company PVG is the ability to trial new greens varieties before integrating them into full commercial production. “For over a year, we did practical research trials up at Pleasant View [at their] R&D facility,” LaDue says. “We went through hundreds and hundreds of varieties of greens to find out what would grow well together in our type of system.” To ensure that the trials were as true to their commercial greenhouse conditions as possible, lef had a custom part of the production system shipped over from its Finnish supplier to grow the greens in. While it wasn’t automated like the full system would be, it still enabled them to conduct accurate trials.
And the trialing isn’t over now that lef’s initial greenhouse production is in full swing. “We will continue to do extensive R&D, whether it’s variety selection, variety trials, whatever we can to stay current, fresh [and] relevant with what the market desire is,” Huntington says. “It’s the same philosophy that we have at Pleasant View — [find something] new, exciting, different, and certainly value-added, that the other guys aren’t doing.”
In addition, the trialing space enables lef to test new, customer-specific blends. “What’s great about the R&D is [if] we have a customer that’s interested in purchasing a certain blend or a certain type of green, it allows us to really prove it before it goes into the greenhouse,” LaDue says. “With a short crop cycle, we can change gears pretty quickly. That flexibility is a really great sales tool, especially when we’re talking about the unique blends that we’re producing.”
7. Potential new customer bases.
While it may seem like there wouldn’t be much crossover between the ornamental and produce customer bases, Huntington sees the potential for PVG to benefit from lef’s new connections. “On the sales side, [lef is] starting to get into grocery stores that are also selling bedding plants, [and] Pleasant View isn’t selling to them,” Huntington says. “There are connections that we’re making here that are potential future sales connections for Pleasant View.”
So far, the companies’ partnership has been a positive and productive one. For ornamental growers looking to move into year-round produce growing, Huntington says to do your homework, and be prepared to make an investment in the right equipment. “There may be opportunities, but you’ve got to look at that carefully,” he says. “You’ve got to have patience and do your homework, and don’t cheap out when it comes to equipment, because you learn the hard way when you do.”