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By Alice Lesch Kelly
It’s time to make a big, beautiful salad. You pull out a bowl. You gather and prepare your ingredients—juicy tomatoes, crispy cucumbers, crunchy carrots, zesty radishes, creamy avocado, and a tangy vinaigrette. Then you reach into the fridge for that package of lettuce you recently bought. You open it, expecting to see fresh, crisp greens. Instead you discover a layer of brown, wilted leaves. Some are even slimy.
Instead of tossing your lettuce into a salad, you find yourself picking through leaves to find the salvageable few. You wonder: What happened to that lettuce?
Chances are it is showing the signs of age. If it was grown on the West Coast—where 98% of the leaf lettuce in the United States is produced—it may have been harvested as long as two to three weeks ago, even if it’s just reaching its sell-by date. After being picked, most West Coast lettuce spends time in packing areas, chlorinated washing stations, shipping containers, processing facilities, and delivery trucks—all before sitting for days in your grocery store.
The problem with cross-country produce
When lettuce spends the tastiest part of its life making a long journey from field to fridge, it’s no surprise that its quality can suffer. But there’s more than just wilted leaves at stake. New England’s reliance on distantly grown produce means missed economic development for the region and can contribute to nutritional and environmental problems, including greenhouse gas emissions, loss of local farmland, soil erosion, and depletion of water supplies.
“Most of the lettuce consumed in New England is produced in places where agricultural production is not sustainable, such as California and Arizona, where current water use threatens long-term supply,” says Analena B. Bruce, Ph.D., assistant professor of food systems at the University of New Hampshire. “And the energy requirements of shipping fresh produce from coast to coast further exacerbate climate change.”
Long-distance transportation can also lead to food waste, which is a serious problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 30-40% of America’s food supply goes to waste.
The good news? It doesn’t have to be that way. By buying locally grown lettuce, New Englanders can help address some of the problems that may occur when produce travels thousands of miles from farm to table.
And they can enjoy some pretty great salads, too. “Locally grown produce is generally fresher due to short transit time and limited storage and handling,” says Alexis Bateman, Ph.D., a research scientist and director of MIT Sustainable Supply Chains.
Little Leaf Farms in Devens, Mass., offers New Englanders a fresher, environmentally friendly alternative to West Coast greens. Lettuce grown at Little Leaf Farms arrives at local grocery stores as soon as 24 hours after it is harvested. By intentionally delivering its lettuce only to stores within one day’s drive or less, Little Leaf Farms maximizes freshness while minimizing the environmental impact of long-distance transit.
“You get a fresher, tastier, superior product,” says Tim Cunniff, Little Leaf Farms’ co-founder and executive vice president of sales and marketing. “Each leaf retains moisture, is super crunchy, and has a sweetness that you don’t find in other types of lettuce.”
Little Leaf Farms produces lettuce year-round in 10 acres of energy-efficient, sustainable greenhouses with no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. It requires 90% less water than field-grown lettuce, and it captures 100% of the rainwater that falls on the greenhouse roof to help grow Little Leaf Farms lettuce.
How can lettuce grow in the winter in Massachusetts? Thanks to the specially designed glass in its greenhouses, Little Leaf Farms uses all of mother nature’s free natural sunlight and supplements it with high energy efficient grow lights.
To keep its greenhouses toasty during our long winters, Little Leaf Farms also burns clean natural gas, captures carbon dioxide, and releases it back into the greenhouse, where lettuce plants use it for photosynthesis.
“It gives the lettuce a perfect environment to grow,” Cunniff says. “It’s like the lettuce is growing in a spa.”
Growing in New England
In addition to supplying freshness and taste, buying lettuce grown nearby helps nurture the regional economy and localize the food supply. “Choosing food products that have been produced in New England contributes to the development of a regional food system that is more resilient in the face of disruptions like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change,” Bruce says.
“Consumers are more interested in the source and production of their food than ever,” Bateman says. “They want to know where it came from, what practices were involved, and how it got into their hands.”
No matter how sustainable a food is, though, they are equally concerned that it tastes delicious. This is a story Little Leaf Farms hears often. “People buy Little Leaf Farms’ lettuce because it’s local,” Cunniff says, “but they keep buying it because of the taste.”
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New England Grown