NEW LONDON — With plates heaped high with at least five varieties of lettuce picked that morning at an aeroponics farm a couple miles away, restaurant owners and volunteers working to bring a food cooperative to New London were clearly enjoying their salads.
They were also talking with the farm’s owners about getting the fresh greens on the menu and on the shelves.
“Absolutely,” said Leah Michaelis, owner of Lake Affect Coffee in New London, when asked if she would consider purchasing the leafy greens from Lettuce Abound Farms. “It’s good and nearby and fresh.”
Mateo Mackbee and his partner Erin Lucas, who will be opening Model Citizen Restaurant this month in the Goat Ridge Brewery in New London, said the locally grown greens will fit perfectly with the farm-to-market emphasis of their menu.
That’s exactly the kind of reaction Kevin Ortenblad and Brian Dengler were hoping for when they invited several business owners and business leaders on a tour last week to see how their aeroponics lettuce is grown and to serve up a meal featuring their first harvest.
When Ortenblad and Dengler, along with their wives Julie Ortenblad and Melody Dengler, started the process 16 months ago to build the region’s first commercial-scale aeroponics lettuce farm, they asked local grocery stores and restaurateurs if they would be interested in buying lettuce grown year-round in rural New London.
“They told us, ‘let us know when you have something to taste,'” said Dengler, who is Ortenblad’s son-in-law.
That time has arrived.
To show people how the lettuce is raised, how it tastes and how much it costs, the family-owned farm is giving tours and giving potential customers a taste of the product.
While building up their wholesale commercial base, individuals can purchase the lettuce from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. directly from the farm site, 3825 County Road 40 N.E. The price is $2.25 a head.
“You pray at the end that people want it,” said Dengler, who is also setting up private meetings with local grocery stores. Their goal is to sell their product to local vendors.
“We’re very optimistic,” Dengler said.
They’re hoping that once people taste the greens, they’ll be hooked.
“My life was rocked when I found out what real lettuce can taste like,” Dengler said.
Lettuce Abound is the first franchise operation of the Faribault-based Living Greens Farm, which developed this type of aeroponics system.
Ortenblad and Dengler modified the system and, despite some challenges that delayed the start-up, they said the system is working flawlessly and plants are growing faster than expected.
The facility is housed in a farm machine shed they turned into an immaculate indoor farm that meets federal vegetable production and packaging standards.
After suiting up in a white jacket and hairnet, washing one’s hands and stepping in a shallow shoe wash before entering the indoor farm, visitors see vertical walls of lush green lettuce.
The quantity and vibrancy of the edible greens stop visitors in their tracks.
When the facility is eventually in full year-round production, the 102- by 50-foot building will produce the equivalent of a 180-acre farm.
But these plants are grown without one grain of soil.
Instead, seeds for the greens — including butter lettuce, red and green oak leaf lettuce, romaine, arugula, and microgreens — are hand-seeded in a product called “rock wool” that Dengler describes as crushed volcanic rock “spun like cotton candy.”
After the seeds germinate and plants are a couple inches high, the chunks of rock wool are placed into panels with cup-like plastic containers and attached to 12 stainless steel A-frame units that are eight feet high and 32 feet long.
Each unit holds 1,536 lettuce plants.
The roots of the plants dangle in the air underneath the frame and are spritzed every 12 minutes with a mist of reverse osmosis water and fertilizer delivered through mechanical sprayers run by a complex computer program.
The water does not touch the leaves of the lettuce, and there are no pesticides used.
Banks of intense lights — which are so strong sunglasses are needed to work among the plants — help fuel the plants’ rapid growth. (The lights are turned down during tours.)
The carbon dioxide level is carefully measured, the temperature is kept at 70-72, the humidity is at 55-65 percent and a fan blows air to mimic the wind and makes the indoor farm “smell amazing,” Dengler said.
“Schedule is king,” Dengler said of the enclosed system and computer program that controls nearly every aspect of the growing process.
It takes about a month from when seeds are started to when plants are harvested. During peak capacity, they will harvest three units, or about 4,600 heads of lettuce, every week, Ortenblad said.
The plan is to harvest lettuce on Thursday and get it packaged and cooled and delivered on Friday.
They are gradually increasing the number of varieties of lettuce and will grow specific types of greens requested by large-scale customers, Dengler said.
While they’re growing just lettuce now, they have already laid the groundwork for a potential expansion in a couple years for a new building to grow aeroponics strawberries and small cherry tomatoes.
Ortenblad, a retired farmer who raised organic soybeans in traditional fields near Willmar, said he is “having a ball” with this new project, in part because he gets to work with his family, including grandchildren, who help plants the seeds.
During the April blizzard, he teased his farmer friends that he was already working in his fields in a perfect climate-controlled environment surrounded by sumptuous green leaves ready to eat while they were waiting out the storm.