Steve Amundson was the first employee at Bushel Boy Farms, a 20-acre tomato greenhouse operation based in Owatonna, Minnesota. When he started in 1990, he estimates that greenhouse-grown tomatoes only accounted for 1% of the market share. Now, he estimates that figure is up to 85%.
“You can hardly find a field-grown tomato,” he says.
Today, Amundson is the head grower and a founding partner at Revol Greens, a greenhouse operation founded two and a half years ago in Medford, Minnesota. Using a hybrid hydroponic system powered by natural light and recycled rainwater, Revol (short for revolutionary) has worked to position itself as the local alternative to field-grown greens. According to Amundson, the business was founded on the belief that greens, like tomatoes, would largely pivot to greenhouse grown product over the next few years.
“We figured with all of the food safety issues with lettuce, we think that greens are the next segment that needs to be brought indoors and controlled,” he says.
Food safety at the forefront
According to Amundson, Revol Greens’ farm was built with food safety in mind from the beginning. When he and fellow founding partners Marco de Bruin, Jay Johnson, Brendon Krieg and Marc Vergeldt started the farm, Amundson says their various experiences with CEA led them to think food safety was something businesses valued, forcing businesses to adapt on the fly if and when something happened.
It helped that each founding partner came to the project with first-hand knowledge. Bruin and Johnson previously owned Bushel Boy, Krieg spent six-plus years at Target sourcing and overseeing produce, and Vergeldt is a long-time horticulture consultant based in The Netherlands. Food safety scares in the tomato market — namely a salmonella scare affecting the tomato market in the 2000s — also influenced Revol’s investment in food safety.
“When we were consulting on a few other places, they didn't set things up properly for flow,” Amundson says. “So, you had clean product going past dirt, people could come in at different locations and we wanted to set the bar. We didn't want to just live up everyone else, we wanted to actually be the ones setting the standards." That vision helped last November, when an E. coli scare coming out of California field-grown product left some Revol customers scrambling. When Revol was able to fill the order, Amundson said it created faith in their brand that then led to increased sales.
To maintain food safety, Revol relies on automation. When seeds are planted, they are done so by a machine. When the plants are moved from the germination chamber out to the greenhouse, it is done by a flume so it can’t be dropped or taken into an unclean area. Then, over a roughly 17-day period, greens are produced over a growing pond before being taken back onto the flume. From there, they are harvested by a machine and packaged the same day. Every employee at Revol — the current 35 in full and part-time positions — also wear protective gear to prevent any possible contamination of its five offerings: baby arugula, a spring mix, a ‘mighty’ spring mix with baby spinach added in, romaine and a sweet butter blend.
Revol’s growing method relies on sustainable practices to keep product costs low. According to Amundson, rainwater and melted snow on the greenhouse is recycled and used in the greenhouse. Natural sunlight also accounts for much of the plants’ light needs.
“Our goal is to feed the 99%,” he says. “We need efficiency and sustainability and we need to be at a cost that the average person can afford and will buy because of the freshness and the quality.”
In Minnesota, Amundson says Revol will soon complete an expansion from 2.5 acres of growing space to 10 acres. Sometime in March, he says the new growing space — outfitted with the same technology as the previous space — will begin to be filled with crops. He says that retail partners like Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, Hy-Vee and Hornbacher’s in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin all have had continued success with their product.
In part, Amundson says, it’s because it emphasizes that the greens are grown in Minnesota with a prominent logo on the packaging.
“[The packaging] has helped a ton in Minnesota and I think in most states, people are going to be a little more loyal to something grown in their state,” Amundson says. “And the local is becoming more and more popular. More people are starting to realize that 90% of the lettuce in stores is grown in California and Arizona and shipped to the land of 10,000 lakes and how odd that is.”
“We expanded because of the demand we feel is coming and the interest we continue to get,” he continues. “The consumer is used to going to one part of the store and buying one kind of lettuce, so for us [to succeed], we had to do a lot of in-store demonstrations and really go for the local. Over just the last year, our sales have risen to the point where we are too small to supply some of the really big players in produce sales. We were too big for the napkin, but too small for the tablecloth.”
Amundson adds that expanding also will make the business more efficient.
“We had built our facility — the headhouse, the packing area, all of the equipment — for the full 10 acres,” he says. “So, for us, expanding to 10 acres is easier to do than only expanding to 7 acres. Plus, we have this expensive packing and harvesting equipment that is only run for two, three hours in a day. It still takes two, three hours to clean it if we run two acres through it or 10 acres through it.”
Additionally, the Revol Greens will soon expand to California. In January, the company announced it had purchased land in Tehachapi, California. The company, located near San Jose in the Northern part of the state, is a big investment in CEA and has the ability to compete against field-grown product. Amundson says the 64-acre California location is part of a bigger plan to expand to new states and offer locally grown product in as many places as possible. The goal is for the facility to open in early 2021.
“Future growth from that could be Texas, could be in the Northwest,” Amundson says. “The goal when we do this is to build a big enough facility [to meet demand], but to also be within one day of any retail partner. That’s non-negotiable.”
The belief in the California expansion, and whatever comes next, is the same belief that spurred Revol’s founding in the first place: that the lettuce market is changing and the Revol team is ready for it.
“Dating back to our time at Bushel Boy, and us working with produce managers, they know we are going to deliver high-quality product,” Amundson says.