ROCHELLE – BrightFarms greenhouse in Rochelle is finishing up an expansion this month, planned even before the company saw a jump in lettuce sales to people doing more cooking at home because of COVID-19.
"Our business is up a bit because of the pandemic,” BrightFarms CEO Steve Platt said. “Overall, if you look at the data across the country, I think produce is up about 10% in most grocery stores. Our business is growing in the last month, 40 to 45%.”
BrightFarms grows several varieties of lettuce, spinach, basil and arugula.
Platt believes that a decentralized supply chain for food makes sense when there are problems all over the country, and that consumers take comfort knowing their food comes from within a day’s drive.
The Rochelle greenhouse opened in 2016 to serve Midwest markets such as Chicago and Milwaukee. Its first harvest since nearly doubling the size of its greenhouse should be coming in the next week or two.
Rochelle was chosen because of its proximity to those Midwest markets, less traffic, "and then we also get to invest in a local rural community that's more in need of jobs and can be a place where we can be a big part of the community,” Platt said.
More than 95% of lettuce sold in the U.S. comes from California;it's grown outdoors – utilizing pesticides and making it more susceptible to e-coli contamination, Platt says – then trucked across the country.
BrightFarms’ lettuce is grown in strategically placed indoor locations across the U.S., in ponds utilizing hydroponics.
"Our mission is all about the health of the planet for sustainability, but also the health of people,” Platt said. "The greens we grow have no pesticides, and they're fresh within 24 hours and they taste better so you eat more.”
BrightFarms is more environmentally friendly than its competitors because it uses less water in its growing process and causes fewer emissions when it transports, he said.
The Rochelle location does ship as far as Kansas City and Iowa. Its limit on travel is 1 day, down and back.
By the time the expansion is complete, the Rochelle greenhouse will have about 40 employees; it is hiring for harvesting and packing positions.
Food processing plants have had to take precaution during the pandemic to keep workers safe. BrightFarms, which has had no positive cases, is doing wellness checks and giving people paid sick time if they don't feel well, or have been exposed to the virus.
“We want to take care of people,” Platt said. “We have social distancing. That changed our operation a bit. Everyone is wearing a mask, and we have an enhanced cleaning protocol. We're not allowing any visitors in.”
The increase in sales is here to stay – shopping locally is a food industry trend, he said
“People are doing it for many reasons,” Platt said. “They're more concerned about their own community. Also because of the transparency we provide knowing where it came from. There's been a big push back against big food companies over time, and I think the local food movement grows from that."
BrightFarms has six greenhouse operations, recently breaking ground in North Carolina and opening a new one in central Pennsylvania.
While the Rochelle expansion is still in progress, another may not be far off, as demand grows in Chicago and the Midwest, and BrightFarms wants to continue to expand the Rochelle facility in the future, he said.
"Sure, another could be not too far down the road,” Platt said. “We're continuing to grow.
"Rochelle supplying Chicago was really our second major greenhouse we ever built, and it's been a great home for us since."