FARIBAULT, Minn. — George Pastrana has been the CEO of Living Greens Farm for only a couple of months, and what impressed him first and more than anything was just how green the produce was.
"That color, the thickness and then the taste — it's all what nature intended," said Pastrana, staring at a rack of fresh basil. "It's not what you would expect, because we've been eating stuff for so long that isn't like this."
The 20,000-square-foot growing site in Faribault where Pastrana was admiring recently harvested greens is considered to be a "test farm" for the company.
"We believe we've perfected an aeroponic growing process that allows us to create large heads of lettuce at a fantastic yield," said Pastrana.
The company plans to break ground on a nationwide expansion at the end of this year, or the beginning of 2021, he said.
"That will be the first of multiple phases of expansion," Pastrana said. "To ultimately ship to and supply two-thirds of consumers and households in the United States."
Construction will take place not in Faribault but somewhere else in the U.S., which will be announced later by the company. The first phase of expansion will be a site that will service the Midwest, and following sites will serve other sections of the U.S. until it's covered.
Pastrana said there's "a lot of excitement amongst the investor community" to fund the expansion efforts. He said most of that interest existed before the pandemic, and the "controlled environment" area of ag-tech has shown a lot of promise over the last decade.
"But I think the pandemic really brought to life the need for a better, more consistent supply chain, and controlled agriculture doesn't have all the problems of traditional agriculture, with recalls and so on," said Pastrana. "(The pandemic) has just hyper-exaggerated the need for better farming techniques."
According to Pastrana, what makes Living Greens Farm a "true aeroponic vertical farming business model" is its ability to produce exceptional products.
"We are able to deliver much heavier heads of lettuce than our competitors and more consistent yields in an environment that is herbicide and pesticide free," he said.
Unlike most of its competitors, the company does its own cutting, washing and bagging of produce on-site, Pastrana said.
"So we're going to get our product on the shelves of retailers within 24 hours of harvest," he said. "That makes us pretty unique."
Michelle Keller, head grower of the operation in Faribault, has worked at Living Greens Farm for seven years.
"Since basically the conception of the project," she said.
She said those years were spent building, reconfiguring and rebuilding grow systems — all aimed at finding the best way to grow romaine and butter lettuce in a vertical space.
"We always wanted to go vertical," said Keller of Living Greens.
Traditional vertical farming is "stacked," she said, but the company wanted to incorporate a system that people could work from the floor, without the use of ladders or platform machines.
"So each person can stay on the ground and work the farm completely from the safety of the floor," she said.
It takes a family
Keller takes pride in the camaraderie at the farm, with workers leaning into their roles as plant nurturers. She's also not afraid to admit that she and other employees talk to the plants and sometimes give them names.
"We are a small family," said Keller of the different grow groups at the farm. "It's not uncommon to know everyone's name, and to know what they're going through and what they're able to accomplish at the farm."
Before Living Greens came up with the A-frame technology that it uses now, the company tried four different renditions of a "staircase approach", said Keller.
As head grower, her primary goal is to raise "full-grown heads of lettuce that are robust enough to survive the packaging process," and go on to have a full two-week shelf life.
Living Greens is also committed to being pesticide free, said Keller, and the farm mandates a high standard of cleanliness to prevent harmful things from getting into its facilities and a protocol for if something does.
"Every stage of the growth pattern is followed by disinfecting or sanitation," she said.
Keller said the operation at Living Greens is guided by GAP — good agricultural practices — as well as GMP — good manufacturing processes. What makes the operation unique is that it has been conducting both of these processes successfully under the same roof long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Keller said.
When the pandemic broke out in March, Keller called an all-employee meeting where she was straightforward about what was in their control. They now meet every week to discuss what's happened lately with the outbreak.
"We were always just really honest about it," said Keller of the pandemic.
She told them in that original meeting that Living Greens Farm would stay open if employees not only took the on-site precautions seriously but were also "hyper aware" when they were at home.
"Making sure that there's no miscommunication about this is what has to be done, to keep ourselves open," Keller said.