After an early February winter storm, more than a foot of snow accumulated in Concord, N.H., but that didn’t prevent employees of the Courtyard Marriott Grappone Conference Center from heading outdoors to harvest organic salad greens. Despite freezing temperatures, the hotel is growing an abundance of lettuce, kale, spinach, arugula, and basil. So what’s their big secret?
In November, Boston-based startup Freight Farms unloaded a 40-foot-long insulated freight container in the property’s parking lot. Referred to as the Leafy Green Machine, the unit is outfitted with advanced climate technology that creates the optimal growing conditions needed to maximize any harvest. So come rain, snow, hail or sleet, the Grappone Center will be able to grow leafy greens hydroponically year-round. The hotel’s owner Steve Duprey says their Leafy Green machine is only the fourth unit Freight Farms has installed so far and marks the first one in use at a hotel facility.
“We’ve been building gradually, but when fully mobilized, we’ll produce the equivalent of 700 heads of lettuce a week in a 320-square-foot repurposed freight box,” he says.
The conference center already had 30,000 bees living on the roof that produce all of the honey needed for its kitchens and guest events. Executive Chef Trish Taylor had been pushing Duprey for a garden also, but there wasn’t a lot of excess room to build one. When the freight farm showed up, no one was more enthusiastic than Taylor. “She is into it big time,” Duprey says.
Using a tablet, Taylor or the conference center’s operations manager can control everything from the time of daylight to the speed of water flow to how strongly the fans run inside the container. “They don’t even have to go in except once a week to harvest and plant new seeds,” Duprey says.
In addition to producing more than enough greens to support guest services at the hotel and conference center, Duprey says the farm helps reduce the property’s carbon footprint. “Instead of shipping greens from California, Arizona, or Florida in January, February, March, and April, we walk out back and the chef goes into the freight farm, sees greens, cuts what she wants, and takes it to use it that day.”
On an annual basis, the Grappone Center was spending an average of $1.72 per head of lettuce, Duprey says, and now it can produce $80,000 to $90,000 of salad greens annually. In the winter, fresh basil in New Hampshire costs about $15 a pound, he adds, but the freight farm can produce it for about a tenth of that. The hotel’s top-end cost, when factoring in labor, utilities, seeds, and nutrients, is approximately $25,000, Duprey says. “It’s a very good payback ratio.”
Growing their own greens will not displace local farmers, Duprey stresses. The hotel and conference center has not been able to buy enough organic, locally produced greens, particularly in winter. “Our problem is, when we need 500 heads of lettuce three days in a row, we strain just about every small producer here in our region,” he explains. Local growers also prefer to sell retail at farmers markets rather than to large businesses like the Grappone Center that want to pay wholesale prices.
Duprey owns two other hotels in Concord, a Residence Inn and a Comfort Inn, which are also benefiting from the surplus of greens produced by the Leafy Green Machine. Duprey also is talking to local food co-ops and juiceries about purchasing excess greens, and he has had calls from a number of local restaurants that want access to it.
“You can give these plants 18 hours of pest-free ideal temperature, ideal growing conditions, a constant steady supply of water, and nutrients,” Duprey says. “No wonder they grow.”