A new indoor agriculture business in Hamilton is looking to flip the traditional produce model on its head.
Most of the produce people purchase in grocery stores — especially in the coldest months — is grown thousands of miles south of the Bitterroot Valley. It takes a considerable amount of energy and time to transport that lettuce and herbs from there to here.
“Today our food travels thousands of miles to get here from California, Arizona and, in some cases, it is air freighted in from Hawaii,” said Jeff Leggott, Local Bounti’s business development manager. “Our food coming into Hamilton is typically traveling one to three thousand miles. There is a lot of energy consumed to get it here.”
The company’s 40,000-square-foot state-of-the-art greenhouse facility on Foley Lane is looking to change all of that.
The company broke ground on its five greenhouses and attached processing facility in May 2019. This May, its employees planted the first seeds. In July, it sold its first product to the USDA for its food box program in Montana and Idaho.
Now, all of the greenhouses are filled with basil, cilantro, parsley, Italian parsley, and a variety of romaine and leaf lettuces that will soon be appearing in regional grocery stores. All are non-GMO and free of herbicides and pesticides.
Despite rumors to the contrary, the company is not growing medical marijuana and doesn't plan to do so.
“Most Montana produce is imported from other states and countries, spending weeks in transit before arriving at local grocery stores and restaurants,” said Ceko Mulyando, Local Bounti’s head grower. “We’re about to change all that by giving Montanans the opportunity to revitalize their taste buds and enjoy the fresh, delicious flavors and smells of a variety of healthy, living greens and herbs grown right in their neighborhood year-round. We believe local is the best kind of business.”
Local Bounti currently employs 24 people in jobs that pay above the median wage with benefits.
“Our business is focused on all things local, so we’re committed to creating a community environment and hiring local residents who have a vested interest in contributing to the success of our company,” said Alexis Barrett, vice president of business development.
The company is hyper-focused on sustainability.
The process Local Bounti uses to grow crops uses 95% less water than traditional agriculture on 90% less land in terms of yield. Its current facility is built on about an acre of land.
And the company is tapped in the Ravalli Electric Cooperative power grid, which gets 95% of its energy from renewable hydropower.
“We tapped into a really amazing energy source,” Leggott said “We’re able to control the environment 365 days a year, 24/7. We are growing about 12 different types of greens and a handful of different herbs.”
The company’s lettuces and herbs are already available in Missoula Fresh Market and soon will be on the shelves at Super 1.
“We hope to be in 165 grocery stores between now and the end of the year,” Leggott said.
Harvested with about a half-inch of root attached to each plant, Local Bounti’s lettuces will be easy to spot in the produce section.
“In traditional agriculture, you cut the plant off at the ground,” Leggott said. “That plant is then dead and begins the process of decay. So, not only are we getting our products to stores quicker, but we are also delaying that decay. The plants are still living. They are taking in food and water, which prolongs shelf life.”
Today, most of the lettuce purchased in grocery stores is produced in large lettuce fields in California and Arizona. With the advent of COVID-19 and the threat of E. coli, consumers are taking a closer look at where their food comes from.
“People are looking at the food chain with different eyes right now,” Barrett said.
When lettuce production moves from California to Arizona around November, there are sometimes shortages in “food deserts” further north. The method of harvesting those lettuce crops is also a concern for some.
The lettuce is cut from the field by workers and thrown into the back of a truck where it’s packaged by others.
“There are a lot of hands involved,” Barrett said. “Distributors tell us the boxes come into their facilities filthy dirty. The dirt is plastered on the outside of the box. That’s not a good feeling, especially now in the light of all the cleanliness that everyone is focused on right now.”
The food is transported from those massive farms to hubs where it sits in huge refrigeration units for two to four days before being shipped to a store. By the time the food is purchased, it can be 10 to 14 days old.
“It’s super exciting that we’re trying to change the way food is grown,” Leggott said. “They select varieties based on durability, not necessarily taste, quality or nutritional value. We don’t have that problem. We can be selective and grow varieties for taste and quality.
“Our thought was why not flip the model on its head and start producing food in the areas of the country that need it the most,” Leggott said. “Instead of more food miles, higher costs, lower food quality, it’s lower food miles and higher quality.”
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