Going big on CEA
Sporting a name evoking revolutionary change, Revol Greens is growing organic and conventional lettuce and leafy greens via environmentally friendly hydroponic methods.
Through new growing methods inside regional greenhouses that allow shorter delivery distances, the Owatonna, Minnesota-based Revol hopes to change leafy greens and the broader fresh food sector.
“As we see continued challenges to outdoor production, whether growers are able to grow in certain regions due to lack of resources, lack of labor or a shortage of truck drivers, it becomes even more critical as an industry to have more regionalized production,” said Brendon Krieg, co-founder and sales manager. “With the growing population, people are eating healthier. We need to find a way to grow more product with fewer resources. Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) will become a factor in many categories.”
Employing sustainable growing methods to grow lettuce with minimal soil, Revol touts itself as the largest U.S. indoor producer of lettuce and leafy greens. Growing in some soil, the company uses a hybrid approach that marries the best of hydroponic and traditional soil growing.
Revol grows a variety of conventional and organic baby leaf lettuce and greens and salad mixes in greenhouses in southern Minnesota, northern Georgia and Southern California and is building one in central Texas. Revol’s lineup includes baby spinach and baby arugula, living butter leaf and living green leaf lettuces, spring mix, sweet butter blend and romaine crunch.
In 2018, Revol harvested its first crop an hour’s drive south of Minneapolis. It soon increased its greenhouse from 2.5 acres to 10 acres.
Expansions are planned at other plants which could double or even quadruple output. Scheduled to open in the fall, the 40-acre Temple, Texas operation’s infrastructure is designed for more expansion. The 64-acre Tehachapi, California complex south of Bakersfield, opened in August 2021.
Varying temperatures inside Revol’s geographically diverse greenhouses require active adjustment of temperature and lighting intensity via climate screens or curtains. The Minnesota prairie’s arctic winter temperatures bring starkly different growing challenges compared to the 270 days of sunshine seen in California’s high desert of the Tehachapi Mountains.
In October 2021, Revol acquired Living Fresh of Athens, Georgia. It plans to expand the 4-acre Atlanta area operation which was one of the first indoor leafy greens operations.
“We’ve learned a lot from that team and their experience growing in a difficult climate,” said Krieg. “Like Texas, it gets very hot there, but the humidity levels are higher than Texas. The way they are able to grow and manage their crop in that environment will be tremendous for us as we expand and look at other potentially challenging growing regions.”
Indoors or out
CEA can control many agronomic variables, including pests and birds and protect crops from contaminants. Unlike in field agriculture, CEA operations can control water, which Revol sterilizes with UV light.
Revol gained much from the testing ground Minnesota offers for greenhouse features, said Krieg.
“Every month and season, we’re learning a ton of lessons and capturing a lot of information and data,” he said.
Conserving water is a key part of the system. Revol’s operations use up to 95% less water than outdoor systems. Through a gutter system, the Minnesota greenhouse captures rain and snowmelt and stores the water in covered retention ponds.
The prevention of evaporation and waste challenges resulting from runoff and evaporation, prevalent in field grown produce, is important for sustainability.
“As we see changes and challenges associated with changing climates, water will become more challenging,” said Krieg.
With land available for use every day in CEA, the land can become more productive than field production, he said.
Revol’s regional greenhouse network affords faster transport of product which helps meet growing consumer demand for fresh local and regionally produced products. Delivering to customers inside a day’s drive, within a 500-mile radius of production, Revol is reducing transportation’s impact on the environment by taking trucks off the roadways.
Avoiding human contact with its products offers heightened safety. All Revol’s baby leaf lettuce and greens are grown in a touchless system. Grown on boards and floats, plants move through the greenhouse on water flumes.
In an automatic harvesting and packing system, blades cut the plants moving on belts, leaving remains including the plant root system for composting. Growing boards are automatically cleaned and sterilized before the process repeats.
“For us, it’s really about growing a clean and healthy product,” said Krieg. “The way we’re growing, the plants get all their nutrients from the growing ponds, only taking what they need through the roots, so there’s no waste or runoff. All the water we use, other than cleaning and sanitizing, leaves the facility in the form of a plant. It only takes one pint of water to grow a tub of our lettuce compared to up to 12 gallons in open field production.”
Factors beyond agronomic practices, including an experienced grower team, are important for successful indoor growing.
“The biggest thing is having someone with experience who has grown the product but also knows how to get it to your customers,” said Krieg.
Planning for success
Knowing what your customers want and being able to supply them with a large enough product assortment can capture a buyers’ attention and make it worthwhile for them. That can be a challenge for smaller operations or ones focused on one or two core items. As some growers in the past constructed growing systems around growing one particular type of item. Today, growers should research what their potential customers want, estimate demand and consider the most beneficial items they can produce.
In developing their plans, growers should assemble a total plan on what they wish to grow, where they will grow it, who their customers will be and how they will transport it to the market.
“Others that have failed or aren’t doing as well may have had one or two pieces of the puzzles. We feel we have all the pieces of the puzzle,” said Krieg. “There’s a lot of new technology in this space. Some people make the mistake thinking everything can be done with a formula and a computer. We’re not growing widgets. We’re growing living and breathing organisms.”
Revol was founded in 2016 by Steve Amundson, Marco De Bruin, Jay Johnson, Brendon Krieg and Marc Vergeldt. Four were involved in Bushel Boy, a southern Minnesota greenhouse tomato operation started by Johnson and growers Amundson and De Bruin. Krieg was a leafy greens buyer for 1,800 Target stores, while Vergeldt later left to do global fruit and vegetable crop consulting.
With growing demand for plant-based foods, Krieg said he sees a bright future for CEA and potential for other produce – including berries – to be grown indoors.
A decade or two ago, most tomatoes were grown in fields. Today, about 85% are grown indoors. As 90% of leafy greens consumed in the U.S. are grown outdoors, Krieg said he foresees CEA production taking a higher percentage in the near future.
“CEA will be necessary in many categories just to keep up with demand,” said Krieg. “We will see exponential growth for CEA production, especially for leafy greens and lettuce. There are obvious challenges to outdoor production. CEA will never replace field-grown, but it will continue to obviously be a major part of the category.”
For Krieg, Revol’s name certifies its making a positive impact and changing for the better the whole leafy greens industry. “We truly want to revolutionize the industry and make an impact on a broader scale,” said Krieg.