Feb 2, 2022Grower partnerships help Edible Garden produce local organic greens
Sustainability and environmental stewardship are in the recipe of success for Edible Garden.
The greenhouse and hydroponic producer of organic greens, lettuces and herbs utilizes sustainable and proprietary growing practices to produce organic produce from seed to store.
The Belvidere, New Jersey-based greenhouse grower’s slogan is “Simply local, simply fresh.” Edible Garden produces locally grown organic produce supported by a network of zero-waste-inspired, new-generation greenhouse farms. The company uses advanced technology to sustainably grow and/or process and package its lettuce and herbs.
“It’s about doing more with less,” said Jim Kras, chief executive officer. “It’s about being eco-friendly and being conscious about what you’re doing to the environment. We try to hire and keep good growers who really understand what it is we’re looking to accomplish.”
Local, organic and greenhouse grown
Though some items are grown conventionally, an overwhelming majority – about 90% – of Edible Garden’s products are grown organically.
To supply locally grown leafy greens to supermarkets, Edible Garden works with partner farms and operations in 10 states: New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida, Colorado and California.
“We are growing the freshest product closest to the stores’ distribution centers as possible,” said Kras. “We are managing multiple locations with multiple orders across multiple retailers.”
In all of its operations, Edible Garden produces crops on hundreds of thousands of square feet of greenhouses. Its New Jersey plant alone operates on more than 200,000 square feet of greenhouses. Edible Garden ships greens directly to regional distribution centers of retail chains including Meijer, with products arriving within a day or two of harvest.
Working with partner farms helps reduce food miles, deliver a fresher product and reduce loss.
“We have really focused on our shrink, putting in technology to extend the life of the product longer so it doesn’t end up in a landfill,” said Kras. “That’s sustainability. That’s harnessing technology and innovation, not only on the grower’s side, but also in packaging. It’s more than just growing more with less.”
Edible Garden is fully USDA Certified Organic. It works to ensure everything it uses is approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute, said Kras.
“We have the highest level of certification, not only from an organics standpoint, but also from a non-GMO standpoint,” he said.
Growers of hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics benefited from USDA rules allowing organic certification.
“The consumer has more selection,” said Kras. “Consumers are able to have additional confidence in the quality standards. The consumer wants more organically certified products, so they receive a certain level of comfort in what they’re purchasing. Ultimately, it’s the consumer who benefits.”
Edible Garden provides its partner farms advice and support, particularly newer growers, to show what Edible Garden’s staff has learned about what to do and not to do, and how to get in front of potential problems.
“It’s always about what you don’t see that can get you,” said Kras.
Edible Garden uses its patented GreenThumb app technology, developed in 2020, to optimize greenhouse production and map inventory, retailer demand versus supply, as well as waste and other factors. The software adjusts how Edible Garden grows crops and works with automated environmental controls, which allows workers to ensure tight production controls via phones and tablets. The technology is greenhouse format agnostic and works with traditional greenhouses as well as vertical grows.
“Greenhouses were kind of untapped as it relates to telling the story of sustainability,” said Kras. “It’s incredible how quickly this has accelerated.”
Greenhouses receive signals from the software to adjust shading or other practices, which could compensate for any weather issues. The technology helps cut spoilage and shrink, big pain points for growers and buyers.
“We truly understand what demand and seasonality look like,” said Kras. “All this is done by the major CPGs (consumer packaged goods) companies because the devil is in the inventory, the devil is throwing out perfectly good plants because the supplier didn’t anticipate a buyer.”
Despite crops being grown in protected environments, production challenges, though not as numerous as field growing, remain. Hail storms, which can destroy glass roofs, are one of the biggest threats. Heat, which can flex and crack the glass, is another. Gears in motors that open and close glass can wear out. Energy – the cost to heat and power an operation – is the biggest greenhouse cost.
Though Edible Garden’s closed-loop production system helps mitigate many challenges, greenhouse growers face challenges from pests and diseases, including mites, fly outbreaks, fungus gnats and downy mold. Integrated pest management helps reduce bugs, but sometimes greenhouse growers deal with excessive hunter flies, bugs that fight the detrimental bugs. Suddenly, greenhouse growers must determine how to block pests from entering the packing area.
Consecutive days of rain bring water outside the greenhouses, which attract fungus gnats. Soon, the difficult to detect gnats are inside the greenhouse. Edible Garden’s production crew possesses decades of greenhouse growing experience and knows what to do to protect the plants.
“The challenges sometimes come down to continuing to strive to make sure that you’re learning from what doesn’t work and applying that knowledge to what you can to make it better,” Kras said. “Greenhouses don’t run themselves, but the challenges are there every day.”
The biggest challenge affecting all of organics is pricing, according to Kras. Theoretically, growers should receive some kind of premium because growing organically tends to be more costly than conventional.
“It’s being able to drive value and being at a price point that makes sense for everyone where everyone can make money,” he said.
The costs and effects of logistics remains a concern. Kras said he wants to become better at logistics and determine how Edible Garden can lessen its environmental impact through transportation.
“For me, sustainability starts as growing, then comes packing,” said Kras. “How can we cut our footprint as much as possible?”
Kras recently visited Salinas, California. He said it was heartbreaking seeing what was going on with the water shortages, fires and soil issues.
“It’s tough,” he said. “Then to ship all that across the country, it’s even crazier with that environmental impact.”
Recent reports of increasing global temperatures may accelerate industry activity to combat climate change.
“We don’t want to think about it, but we have to think about it,” said Kras. “We are fortunate to be in an industry where we can start the push to do more. But we are only one small part of it. If we can do our part, it will hopefully help incite change a little bit, which has to be happening faster now.”
Edible Garden began in 2012. A Dutch family constructed a five-acre greenhouse in New Jersey in conjunction with its Terra Tech cannabis firm. In 2016, Kras joined to drive sales and branding.
In March 2020, dealing with the uncertainty of demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company’s owners considered closing Edible Garden. Kras and business partner Mike James, Edible Garden’s chief financial officer and Terra Tech’s CFO, purchased Edible Garden.
Kras possesses a consumer packaged goods marketing background with a food slant. Before joining Edible Garden, he worked for The Bountiful Co., a functional foods operation. He also ran a consumer products division for a Japanese firm that fermented corn into animal feeds, amino acids and pharmaceuticals. Kras also marketed Conagra’s frozen dinners at a New York advertising firm.
Kras said he purchased the company to secure workers’ jobs.
“For me, what was exciting was this is sort of a Wild West industry, where there wasn’t really a recognizable brand in leafy greens,” he said.
Edible Garden’s future includes more greenhouses. By 2023, Edible Garden plans to erect state-of-the-art “sustainability campuses” in New York and the Midwest. An old factory outside of Manhattan is set to be repurposed into a greenhouse operation.
“We’re not looking to put up a greenhouse,” said Kras. “We want to do it right. I am sure we will extend it beyond leafy greens at some point, but we have really made a name for ourselves for leveraging sustainability and innovation and getting the best grower partners.”
— Doug Ohlemeier, VGN correspondent