Your next salad might come from a greenhouse down the street.

Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) combines cutting-edge technology with farming best practices to produce fruits, vegetables and herbs year round, in a small size facility with large scale results unmatched by traditional methods. There are dozens of indoor farming companies sprouting up across the U.S., promising higher yields with a substantially smaller environmental impact. The result is lettuce and greens that are sustainably grown – and because locally grown means a shorter commute – produce that stays fresher longer.

“We believe in the promise of CEA as a sustainable, scalable solution to the climate challenges facing field-grown crops. We are already delivering on the promise of CEA and have ambitious plans to continue growing and bringing fresh lettuce to more homes across the country,” said Paul Sellew, founder and CEO of Massachusetts-based Little Leaf Farms. “The CEA movement stands in stark contrast to most lettuce on grocery store shelves today, most of which travels thousands of miles before reaching the store, with every day spent on the truck sacrificing both fuel and freshness. With CEA practices we’re able to deliver fresher, uniquely long-lasting, delicious and sustainably grown leafy greens to consumers within 24 hours from harvesting.”

Little Leaf’s greenhouses are fully automated and hands-free from seeding through harvesting and packaging.

“We use captured rainwater, resulting in 90% less water usage than field-grown greens and our greenhouses are built to maximize the power of the sun – we grow with natural sunlight and solar-powered energy,” Sellew said. “Our system allows us to maximize space for efficiency too – we have 25-times more yield than conventional farms so 10 acres of our indoor greenhouses replaces 250 acres on a traditional farm.

80 Acres’ Hamilton, Ohio, farm grows year-round greens80 Acres’ Hamilton, Ohio, farm grows year-round greens, including microgreens, culinary herbs, leafy greens and kale for Whole Foods Markets, Kroger, US Foods and other retailers and foodservice distributors. Image courtesy of 80 Acres.

seeds are grown in rack systemsOnce planted, seeds are grown in rack systems, producing about 2 million pounds of greens annually. Image courtesy of 80 Acres.

The process is both environmentally friendly and profitable: in 2019 they raised $300 million in new capital, spurring expansion outside of Massachusetts. This May, Sellew announced plans to open a fifth greenhouse– the company’s second in Pennsylvania. Little Leaf says retail sales of its baby lettuces have increased over 50% in the past year and it expects to make its lettuces accessible to more than half of the country's population by 2026.

Its Sweet Butter Baby Lettuce was voted No. 2 in R&FF’s 2023 Best New Retail Products cone Leaf Farmstest.

Ohio-based 80 Acres used its first farm as a proving ground, taking food production to new heights.

The 150,000-square-foot farm is automated, from seeding to growing to harvesting, using robotics, artificial intelligence, data analytics and around-the-clock monitoring sensors and control systems to optimize every aspect of growing produce indoors. A few dozen employees work alongside the automated portions of the process, under 50-foot high ceilings. Once the seeds are planted they are grown in rack systems, meaning the farm can produce about 2 million pounds of greens annually.

“We want to grow in close proximity to where you live. We want to be in your backyard. That means that the lettuce you by will last longer in your fridge, we can do it without pesticides and we can do it on a very small piece of land,” said Tisha Livingston, co-founder and CEO. “The way that we grow is different. We can provide the perfect day every day. We make the plants strong, we make sure that they are full of nutrition and we can stress the plants in a healthy way. That consistency can be incredibly boring and I want our operations to be boring.”

Livingston and co-founder Mike Zelkind started the company in 2015 and opened the Hamilton site in 2019. The company already has two, larger facilities under various stages of development in Kentucky (coming in 2023) and Georgia (2024). 

Little Leaf Farms’ indoor greenhousesAbout 10 acres of Little Leaf Farms’ indoor greenhouses replace 250 acres of traditional farmland. Image courtesy Little Leaf Farms.

The name 80 Acres tells a story about the amount of food the company can grow, not the amount of land used to grow it. 

“We started this with one sale at Whole Foods and made $42,” Livingston said. “Our first farm was only a quarter acre, but using super-efficient vertical farming techniques, it could grow as much food as 80 acres of traditional farmland, give or take a few pounds. Our new farms can produce much more, but our name guarantees we’ll never lose touch with our roots.”

Other CEA companies making headlines include:

  • Revol Greens in the fall said it will double its romaine lettuce production, adding a 20-acre facility in Temple, Texas. 
  • Gotham Greens will expand its footprint in Kroger stores, bringing its leafy greens to nearly 1,000 by years end.
  • Bowery Farming last year opened its largest farm to date in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with plans for farms in Atlanta and Dallas.
  • Square Roots is partnering with GFS and UNFI to co-late farms at distribution facilities.
  • Local Bounti this spring announced it had expanded its grab-and-go salad line, becoming the first CEA grower to include chicken in its kits.

Little Leaf Farms uses captured rainwaterLittle Leaf Farms uses captured rainwater, resulting in up to 90% less water used in the growing process versus traditional greens. Image courtesy Little Leaf Farms.

For most CEA startups, paying back investors and “hitting the right unit economics is the next battle,” Livingston said. 

As the industry matures, Livingston said she hopes companies “work together to have a more open platform and more standardization across how we do things.” 

The CEA Alliance, an independent organization of controlled environment leafy green growers and associated companies, was created in 2019 to build greater awareness of controlled environment agriculture and establish a set of CEA-specific food safety standards.

Today, the CEA Alliance represents over 30 companies, including 80 Acres and Little Leaf Farms, who was among its founding members.

“This type of farming will only continue to develop and grow,” Little Leaf’s Sellew said. “We’ll see more controlled environments and more greenhouses being built the way it was done in traditional farming – with farms on perimeters of urban markets, but now they’ll be high tech and delivering to urban market population centers.”