Made in Minnesota: Revol Greens Takes Growing Indoors
Sales manager Brendon Krieg (left) stands with Revol Greens President Jay Johnson inside the greenhouse where Revol grows a variety of lettuces using a hybrid hydroponic system.
The LED lights emit a purple hue that stands out from the stark white of the surrounding snow covered fields. It’s a frigid, blustery afternoon, but inside Revol Greens, row after row of lush lettuces enjoy an optimal temperature of 70 degrees with just the right humidity level. And that purple tinge is actually from a combination of high-efficiency red and blue LED bulbs emitting light specifically designed for lettuces because, says Jay Johnson, “That’s what the plants want.”
Johnson would know. Now the president of Revol Greens, he’s been at the forefront of greenhouse growing in Minnesota for three decades, founding Bushel Boy Farms in 1989 in Owatonna as one of the first U.S. greenhouses to grow tomatoes year-round. After selling Bushel Boy in 2011, Johnson is back at it, this time with a hybrid hydroponic system that uses soil boards floating atop ponds of nutrient-rich water to produce more than 2,000 pounds of greens per day.
“It’s modeled after a Dutch system—they’re the leaders in greenhouse growing,” says Johnson, crediting partners Marco de Bruin and Steve Amundson (both formerly of Bushel Boy) for developing the idea for the company that’s been shipping lettuces from its Medford greenhouse since February 2018. “Marco is Dutch from Holland and he was a consultant around the world in this industry after Bushel Boy.”
Other partners are greenhouse crop consultant Marc Vergeldt and sales manager Brendon Krieg, a former leafy greens and greenhouse buyer for Target.
The Forest to Fork mushroom chamber inside Keg & Case Market, where Mike Kempenich harvests several hundred pounds of fungi each week.
Revol’s 2.5-acre greenhouse has 30 times the yield of traditional field farming, according to Johnson. “And you have to, to pay for all this,” he adds, gesturing to the vast growing operation he acknowledges was a multi-million dollar investment, one intended to expand to 10 acres in the coming years.
Food safety and sustainability are key aspects of Revol’s mission of providing fresher, locally grown lettuces to retail and foodservice outlets. While its products are free of pesticides and herbicides, Revol didn’t go the organic route because it didn’t want to use animal byproducts for fertilizer, with Johnson noting those fertilizers have been linked to food safety problems at some farms. Instead, Revol uses a light mineral fertilizer and its automated system means, “No human touches the product from seed through harvest,” says Johnson.
The November E. coli outbreak related to romaine lettuce served to highlight Johnson’s food safety point. Revol Greens was able to demonstrate to the CDC that its operation, which includes UV sterilization of its water, meant its romaine was safe and ultimately it was able to put the lettuce back in its mixes.
Sustainability features, meanwhile, include everything from cutting down fuel usage and costs by shipping within a roughly 200-mile radius of Medford, to using rain water and snow melt for its closed-loop system. A glass roof maximizes natural light, meaning those LED lights are only used as a supplement during shorter winter days.
The quality and consistency of Revol’s arugula, sweet butter, spinach, red oak leaf and other varieties is what Johnson believes is particularly noteworthy, and because the greens are harvested and chilled within 10 minutes for next-day delivery, “the quality and crispness is really locked in.”
“We are pricier for restaurants,” Johnson acknowledges, “but our shelf life is much, much longer. If you pay so much per box [for California-grown greens] but you have to throw away 20 percent of it because it’s slimy, you have to add that to the price.
“We’re four to six days fresher than anything coming out of California.”
Sysco Minnesota is one of Revol’s distributors, with a price range of $13-$15 for a 3-pound foodservice pack. More relevant to restaurant buyers, however, notes Marketing Manager Mike Brogan, is Revol’s “pricing, quality and product availability stays fairly consistent throughout the year. [Whereas] product grown elsewhere is subject to larger pricing swings, shortages, and quality issues.”
Reinhart, U.S. Foods and Bix Produce also carry Revol’s products.
Revol Greens is the latest entrant into Minnesota’s expanding indoor growing segment that includes aquaponics ventures such as the Twin Cities area’s Garden Fresh Farms and Urban Organics, and Living Greens Farm in Faribault, which grows lettuce, herbs and mircrogreens via aeroponics. This method of growing plants involves suspending their roots in the air, where they’re sprayed with a nutrient-rich solution.
Danny Schwartzman, owner of Common Roots Café in Minneapolis, is encouraged by the increasing presence of these growers and wants to see more foodservice buyers do their part to support the long-term viability of such ventures.
“We really need more buyers who are committed to it,” says Schwartzman, who purchases arugula and a mix of romaine and chard from Urban Organics. “We’d love to see more options” and, while “there’s a little bit of a price premium, it’s not a whole lot more than buying organic from California.”
At the Birchwood Café in Minneapolis, chef Marshall Paulsen says local greenhouse-grown lettuces provide a fresher option for the restaurant versus purchasing greens from California during the winter.
“It definitely has a longer life that something you’d buy in a grocery store,” says Paulsen, and having that direct grower connection is “definitely safer than getting it from the unknown void out West.”
Mushrooms See the Light
For Mike Kempenich, one of the goals for his Forest to Fork business is aimed at “really changing the way food is delivered.” Kempenich, known to area chefs and restaurateurs for his Gentleman Forager mushroom foraging company, created an indoor mushroom-growing chamber at Keg & Case Market in St. Paul, where he’s able to harvest 600-800 pounds of mushrooms a week.
“Right now, the way our food system is set up, it’s more about low cost and large volume, so to be able to show that yes, we can produce these items right here and right now” is key to shifting the buying mentality, says Kempenich.
Kempenich wants to eventually replicate his mushroom “fruiting chamber” at a larger production location and, like Johnson at Revol Greens, sees indoor growing as an integral part of the food system in the United States.
“That’s why we got into this business—it’s the future,” says Johnson.