The new coronavirus, COVID-19, has motivated precautions such as temperature checks for employees entering facilities and delayed some of the expansion of Little Leaf Farms, Devens, Mass., 35 miles outside of Boston.
“We reorganized our packaging line, we reorganized our break areas and we do temperature checks when you come into the facility. We basically went the extra mile to separate everybody,” said company president and CEO Paul Sellew. “As an abundance of caution, we thought it was the correct and appropriate thing to do.”
Little Leaf Farms started in 2015, and it’s doubled in size once and soon twice. When the current expansion is complete, there will be 10 acres of produce under glass.
The hydroponic greenhouse farm grows baby salad greens and lettuces using full natural sunlight, all biological controls, no chemicals, no pesticides, no herbicides and no fungicides in a fully automated growing system that’s hands-free from seeding to harvesting, Sellew said.
The vertically integrated company also packages, packs and distributes the clamshells to customers in the New England area within 12 to 24 hours of harvest.
Generally, each truck makes four to eight stops on average each day. Little Leaf Farms’ stops are within a 50 to 80-mile radius or 1.5-hour drive.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, about 85% of Little Leaf’s customers were retailers and 15% foodservice, Sellew said. The company had extra product because foodservice dropped off, so it dedicated that surplus to grocery customers.
The spike in retail demand leveled a bit by March 27, he said, and with such drastic changes in demand with such a perishable product, he’s working on managing the inventory carefully.
“I’ve never seen this pace of change — ever,” Sellew said. “We’re kind of in uncharted territory. We’re going to continue operating and to do our job.”
The expansion has some delays because of travel restrictions and building experts not being able to come from China, Holland and other parts of Europe. But with some construction, food production and grocery retail deemed essential businesses during this pandemic, some of the construction continues with the greenhouse expansion, which was already underway before the coronavirus.
Sellew expected to get fully restarted in April, but now it looks like possibly May, he said.