World’s Largest Indoor Lettuce Producer Found in Southern Minnesota
Sustainable agriculture, farm-to-table movements — the future of farming practices are all beginning right here in southern Minnesota. One company leading the way is Revol Greens, a company doing extraordinary things from its home base near Owatonna. Extraordinary like growing lettuce year-round.
Now, growing anything year-round in Minnesota is no small feat. But lettuce? Armed with an innovative, high-tech greenhouse, Revol Greens is changing the way lettuce and other greens are grown and revolutionizing the farm-to-table concept. This translates to less waste, fresher food, and better flavor.
Fresh and Fast
Founded in the GreenSeam in 2018, Revol Greens chose southern Minnesota as its headquarters by design. Its Owatonna greenhouse is strategically located as part of Revol Green’s business plan, which is to get produce into consumers’ hands fast. They harvest daily, which allows them to deliver their greens to retail and restaurant partners as fresh as possible.
“It is estimated that over 30 percent of fresh produce goes to waste at some point throughout the food chain. This could be in a field in Salinas, California, where most lettuce comes from; on the journey from California to Minnesota; in a warehouse; on a store shelf; or even in our refrigerators at home,” Tom Thompson, Revol Greens’ chief revenue officer, said. “We hope we can get a product that is up to five days fresher to Minnesotans, shortening the food chain and waste before it gets to their homes. Hopefully giving them more time to enjoy our products.”
Revol Greens accomplishes this by using a sprawling greenhouse that spreads over a 10-acre swath of southern Minnesota. Their greenhouse merges natural growing with modern technology to provide optimal growing conditions 24/7, 365 days a year.
“We grow and package lettuces and salads in a completely controlled environment in greenhouses,” Thompson said. “Whether it’s zero degrees or 100 degrees, by growing in controlled environments we are creating balance by optimizing climate and eliminating the use of harmful chemicals. That includes no use of pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides. The net result is a fresher, healthier product for you that is better for the environment and that is grown 365 days a year right here in southern Minnesota.”
Food safety is another key aspect of Revol’s mission. Its products are free of pesticides, herbicides, and types of fertilizers that have been linked to food safety problems at some farms. In addition, no human touches the product from seed through harvest.
“Food safety is our top priority,” Thompson said. “We grow inside a secure and protected greenhouse, keeping animals, pests, and contaminants out. Our product moves through the greenhouse on water flumes to an automated harvest and packing process. From seed to packaging, no human hands touch our baby lettuces and greens. All our lettuce and greens are grown on site in our greenhouse, meaning no co-mingling of product from outside growers. We are certified by Primus Labs meeting Global Food Safety Initiative standards, recognized as one of the highest standards for produce food safety.”
Striving for perfection in taste is also part of the recipe. Revol trials hundreds of seed varieties to find what they believe to be the best-tasting greens. These premium lettuces and greens are then grown with care in the greenhouse. Finally, greens are harvested and chilled within 10 minutes for next-day delivery, locking in the quality and crispness.
Revol’s products have appeared at the perfect time as the demand for delicious, healthy foods continues to increase.
“I think the primary impact is that we are at the center of a changing U.S. consumer diet that is shifting more toward a plant-based diet as the center of the plate. While a good steak and processed foods are not going anywhere anytime soon, we are excited about the role we play in bringing healthier food to Minnesotans’ plates as we all try to eat more local and fresh. We can do this while also creating excitement around how we grow and pride in being locally grown,” Thompson said.
Revol’s Minnesota greenhouse boasts sustainability features like a glass roof to maximize natural light, meaning LED lights are only used when needed during short winter days. Other sustainability features include cutting down fuel usage and costs by shipping within a roughly 200-mile radius of Owatonna. Rainwater and snowmelt supply the facility’s closed-loop hydration system.
“We use what nature has to offer us where possible. All of our water usage is collected from the rooftop and our retention pond at a rate that is 95 percent less than field-grown lettuces from the West Coast,” Thompson said. “Over 80 percent of our plants’ light needs come from the sun. We supplement this through energy-efficient lighting. We also have energy-efficient curtains that keep the heat in in the winter or the extreme heat out in the summer. Our goal is to create that perfect climate recipe and environment that each plant needs.”
Revol Greens’ system uses hybrid hydroponics, with soil boards floating atop ponds of nutrient-rich water. Modeled after a Dutch system, this highly automated system can produce more than 10,000 pounds of greens per day.
“We produce over 5 million pounds per year,” Thompson said. “One acre in our system is equal to about 30 acres of production in an outdoor environment.”
The company’s growth has been fast and furious, a trend they expect will continue. Over the last three years, the company has expanded beyond Minnesota’s borders and now spans the country.
“We have our hands full in continuing to grow our Minnesota location, as well as expanding in California later in 2021. We are also building a site near Austin, Texas, where we hope to be growing product in 2022.”
In addition to its Owatonna headquarters, Revol Greens opened a California location last year and is in the process of building a 16-acre greenhouse in Tehachapi, California. A recent injection of $68 million from Equilibrium Capital helped them launch a third site near Austin, Texas, that is in early stages of development. From these three strategic locations, Revol Greens will be able to reach one-third of the U.S. population within 24 hours of harvest.
“We started out with 2.5 acres over three years ago and we have grown to 10 acres,” Thompson said. “We started with only conventionally grown products, meaning with the use of some mineral-based fertilizer products. Only recently have we added an organic lineup that includes a fertilizer source that is completely plant based. No animal byproducts whatsoever are used in our organic products — a first for any indoor or outdoor organic lettuce farmer.”
Revol Greens’ growth has created jobs in all its locations. It has more than 50 employees in Minnesota. In California, it is up to 50 employees and the team continues to grow, with plans to hire an additional 50 in the next year. Its new Texas facility will bring jobs to that region, as well.
But locations and number of employees are only partial indicators of how far the company has come as it enters its fourth year. Revol Greens’ product offerings have also expanded.
“We started with only six items in our portfolio, but now deliver over 13 different options to restaurant and grocery customers throughout the Midwest,” Thompson said.
Revol’s products are distributed by Sysco Minnesota, Reinhart, U.S. Foods, and Bix Produce. Their greens can be found in the produce sections at Target, Walmart, Hy-Vee, Cub Foods, Coburns, Lunds & Byerly’s, Kowalski’s Market, and Fresh Thyme. A package of greens is typically priced between $2.99 and $3.99. According to Thompson, Revol’s pricing, quality, and product availability are consistent throughout the year, as opposed to traditional growers in outdoor settings that sometimes experience larger pricing swings, shortages, and quality issues.
The concept of growing produce year-round is nothing new for Revol Greens’ co-founder Jay Johnson. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Johnson is not new to the whole revolutionizing agriculture game. In fact, he’s been at the forefront of greenhouse growing in Minnesota for 30 years. Johnson founded Bushel Boy Farms in 1989 in Owatonna. Bushel Boy was one of the first U.S. greenhouses to grow tomatoes year-round.
Like Johnson, many on the experienced leadership team at Revol Greens have strong Minnesota roots.
“The ownership and founders are primarily those with roots in southern Minnesota, with the exception of a financial partner, Equilibrium Capital,” Thompson said. “Our owners are a mix of those who have spent their careers in produce at companies such as C.H. Robinson in Eden Prairie and Target Corporation. Other founders also helped grow Bushel Boy Tomato to what it is today before selling in 2011. Our CEO, Mark Schulze, spent his career at Cargill.”
Aside from southern Minnesota being strategically located to get their products to consumers efficiently, there are also very personal reasons the team started and remains here.
“We love the agriculture roots of people in southern Minnesota. Many of our team members grew up on farms or have ties to agriculture, so it’s exciting for those of us to see the revolution that’s happening in fresh produce. Where we are located, in Owatonna, is also at a crossroads for a lot of primary grocery and food service distribution channels. With easy access to the Twin Cities, where there are many distribution hubs, as well as south on I-35, we also have easy access to customers,” Thompson said.
A prime location that is giving all who live and work in the GreenSeam, a front-row seat to the future of agriculture.