Climate change—rising temperatures, frequent droughts, the degradation of fertile soil—is affecting the ability of farmers to grow enough fresh food to feed all of us. For that reason, a crop of impact entrepreneurs are stepping up efforts to build massive controlled-environment greenhouses in which to produce fresh veggies and the like.
Case in point: Revol Greens. (Revol is short for “revolutionary”, according to co-founder and sales manager Brendon Krieg). The two-and-a-half-year-old, 35-employee company, based in Medford, Minn, grows lettuce and other leafy greens in large, environmentally-controlled greenhouses relying on a hybrid hydroponic system, germinating seeds in soil on boards moving along on water circulating beneath the growing plants.
10 Million Pounds of Lettuce a Year
The company is in the process of building a 64-acre greenhouse in California, as well as expanding its first greenhouse in Minnesota from its original 2-1/2 acres to 10. Ultimately, the goal is to operate on a big enough scale that Revol can grow leafy greens in greenhouses in different areas of the country and sell them regionally, at a price tag that fits with regular consumers’ budgets.
“We don’t want this to be a niche category with an expensive product few can afford,” says Krieg. “We want to compete with outdoor-grown products at similar prices or even lower.”
Ninety percent of lettuce and leafy greens in the US come from Arizona and California and are shipped across the country in refrigerated trucks, according to Krieg. But California is facing a variety of serious climate change-caused environmental challenges—scarcity of fresh water, changing weather patterns and so on.
In the new 64-acre California greenhouse, Revol will use 16-acres, with first rights up to 32 acres, according to Krieg. That should produce about 10 million pounds of lettuce a year. The company’s expansion of its first greenhouse should mean 400,000 square-feet of growing space, up from 100,000.
Krieg and his co-founders rejected the vertical farming that some growers are adopting because, he says, “We feel ours is the most sustainable way to do it.” That’s partly because the produce will be grown on a single plain and the facilities can maximize as much natural light as possible. “The sun is a more powerful natural renewable resource than artificial light,” he says, “So it’s more cost-effective and more sustainable.”
The high-tech greenhouse model allows Revol to grow throughout the winter using a natural gas heating source. Also, the facilities capture CO2 from the boiler, pumping that into the greenhouse as fertilizer. In Minnesota, the greenhouse captures rain and snow and stores it on site. In California, where they’re not allowed to capture rain water, the partners will use well water. “The beauty of that is the system uses 90% less water than traditional farming,” says Krieg.
The focus is on regional distribution to retailers and wholesalers. In Minnesota, for example, the company targets a 400-miles radius—a trip that can be done is a one-day drive.
Krieg got interested in the general problem while working as a vegetable buyer for Target. In the course of his travels, he saw the challenges California farmers faced producing enough supply. Then he linked up with Jay Johnson, who founded Bushel Boy Farms in 1989, one of the first U.S. greenhouses to grow tomatoes year-round—he sold it in 2011—and Marco de Bruin and Steve Amundson, also formerly of Bushel Boys, and greenhouse crop consultant Marc Vergeldt.
The company also chose a non-traditional approach to financing. “We knew it was necessary if we were to grow at the rate we wanted to grow,” says Krieg. With that in mind, the company recently struck a deal with Equilibrium Capital through which Revol will build its California facility, then sell it to Equilibrium and lease it back.
Other startups are also tackling the controlled-environment, sustainable greenhouse market. For example, two-year-old AppHarvest is building a 2.76 million-square-foot controlled-environment agricultural facility on 60-acres in Morehead, Kentucky, using hydroponic growing techniques.