HUDSON — Although it was only in February that his company began producing lettuce that is never touched by human hands, Anthony Umina says the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic was mere coincidence.
"I can’t say I ever saw this coming," said Umina, a partner and managing member of Fresh Local Produce of Ohio, producer of the Free! Leafy Greens lettuce brand.
Umina said the creation of the Hudson-based company had been in the works for about three years, including about 14 months for construction of its fully automated 2-acre greenhouse off Chittenden Road, a little north of Route 303.
"I just liked the idea of being a farmer, being able to grow food," said Umina. "I just think it’s an awesome business."
Umina said the company has about 20 full- and part-time employees, but none of them ever touch the product, which is sold in area Giant Eagle, Acme, Buehler’s and Krieger’s stores. Umina said that using a greenhouse and automation provides a consistency in the product.
"A traditional farmer has to face all the weather and, you know, changes in climate and so forth, and by being able to grow indoors, it’s a controlled environment, which appealed to me because you can pretty much get results that are stable," he said.
The company also boasts that its product is produced without pesticides or any chemicals and without genetic modification. The "Free" in the Free! Leafy Greens name comes from the peace of mind that the company believes its production methods will bring to customers, he says.
Umina is a life-long Summit County resident, having lived in various places including Northfield and around the Akron area. He currently lives in Bath. He has a long-time business connection to Hudson. For nearly 25 years, he has owned the 60-acre commercial development where Fresh Local Produce is located.
Though the lack of complications due to weather has its benefits, Umina said using automation has its drawbacks, including greater upfront and maintenance costs. He declined to discuss those costs, but said he is convinced it’s the way to go.
"There’s a number of different ways to grow lettuce in a greenhouse and I just believe in this technology the most," he said. "It’s a proven system that I was able to investigate and out of the other choices, I just liked this one. I thought it was the safest and most sustainable way to go about it."
The equipment is produced by Green Automation Group Ltd., a company based in Finland and with a subsidiary in Florida.
Fresh Local Produce’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, said
Free! Leafy Greens is packaged in three varieties familiar to area shoppers: a green leaf, a green and red leaf, and a "spring mix" of green and red leaf with a little arugula, a peppery-flavored type. Fresh! spokesman Mark Chenoweth said the green leaf is a crisp variety called finstar, which is similar to romaine but is more flavorful and has a leaf that is curly of wavy, not flat.
"So it really makes a nice looking salad," he said.
Automation does everything in the hydroponic cultivation of the lettuce, starting with planting the seeds in approximately 17,000 "gutters" filled with a substrate medium that allows for precise irrigation and feeding with nutrients. The greenhouse is kept at a constant humidity, a constant temperature of 73 degrees and the crop gets 18 hours of daily illumination. Chenoweth said this not only allows for a consistency in quality, but a greater quantity than could otherwise be produced in the space.
"We can produce a lot more product in those two acres than conventional farming," he said. "That two acres, if we were to plant it in a field, we would need about three times that. So what we’re able to produce is about 10,000 [4-ounce] packages a day, 365 days a year."
The finstar and red leaf varieties take about 25 days to grow to maturity and the arugula takes about two weeks. At harvest time, machines move the approximately 15-foot-long gutters to conveyer belts, which moves them to the "cold room." There, a machine cuts and mixes leaves, then weighs and packages them.
"They’re harvested when they are at 34 degrees, so it insures they are the freshest they can be," said Chenoweth, adding that the packaging includes a resealable flap that consumers can close to keep unused product fresh.
"Our product is then shipped within 24 to 48 hours of harvest and generally lasts within a refrigerator for about three weeks, he said.
After harvesting, the gutters are cleaned and sanitized for the next crop.
Umina said that once the lettuce is within the containers, human employees do become involved in handling them, loading them into boxes and then loading the boxes onto pallets.
"They’re suited up and they have gloves and they have masks," he said. "We have some high standards for food and safety here."
He added that extra precautions are also now being taken.
"In light of this coronavirus, everybody has to have some additional steps that we take to make sure our employees don’t come in here sick and get other people sick here," said Umina. "We’re dealing with the same thing everybody else is."
Chenoweth and Umina said they believe Free! Leafy Greens are superior to much else that is on the market.
"The flavor profile is such that the taste is a nice sweet flavor versus a bitter flavor," said Chenoweth.
"It’s crunchy, it tastes great and it lasts a long time," said Umina, adding that the lettuce has been known to stay fresh longer than a month sometimes.
"Part of that is we’re obviously not having to ship it across the country to get it here," he said.
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at 330-541-9431, email@example.com or @JeffSaunders_RP