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For most consumers, lettuce and tomatoes go hand in hand. But in the produce department, the tomato category has definitely outdistanced its salad and burger complement in recent years.

While the lettuce category had a great run with the addition of value-added items in the 1990s, unlike the tomato category it has not seen a lot of innovation in the past decade. But that might be changing.

Rick Antle, chief executive officer of Tanimura & Antle Inc. in Salinas, CA, one of the top lettuce grower-shippers in the country, said that lettuce just might be ready to rival tomatoes in terms of innovation. If so, T&A is certainly doing its part with the introduction of its "Living Lettuce" product.

Mr. Antle readily admits that the company did not invent the product, but it is making it available on a widespread basis with the development of a multiple-acre greenhouse facility in Tennessee.

"We saw what was available in the marketplace and decided we wanted to become part of that lettuce category," Mr. Antle said recently in an interview with The Produce News.

T&A's "Living Lettuce" product is a hydroponically grown Butter lettuce variety that is harvested and packed with the roots intact for optimal freshness and shelf life. "Living Lettuce" has an average shelf life of 18 days -- two days longer than conventionally grown Butter lettuce -- according to the T&A fact sheet on the product. "Living Lettuce" is packaged individually in a clamshell and retails for $2.99 to $3.99 per head.

Mr. Antle said that as far as the taste profile is concerned, it can not be beat. While it competes against other lettuce varieties, in some respects it is in a category by itself because of its taste and texture.

"This is an upscale item," he said, but added that it is being retailed in virtually every type of store, from specialty produce markets to Walmart. For T&A, "Living Lettuce" continues the upscale trend the company started several years ago with its line of Artisan lettuce varieties. The Artisan packs feature numerous varieties of petite specialty lettuces, such as Oak, Tango and Gem lettuce. Those clamshell packs of four or six small heads of lettuce are designed to appeal to higher-end customers, just as the "Living Lettuce" is aimed at that same audience.

Mr. Antle believes that the lettuce category has room to grow with new and exciting SKUs, just as the tomato category did when items such as tomatoes- on-the-vine, grape tomatoes and yellow tomatoes started to become commonplace in the market.

The "Living Lettuce" production location also allows T&A to capitalize on the locally grown movement and the green revolution, which attempt to reduce the carbon footprint related to food. For this production, T&A built a greenhouse in Tennessee, which Mr. Antle said is within one day's drive of about 85 percent of the U.S. population. The product can be marketed as a locally grown, energy-efficient product in a number of markets surrounding Tennessee.

Mr. Antle said that besides offering a geographically advantageous location, Tennessee welcomes new businesses and facilitated the efficient construction of the facility. The T&A plant, located just east of Nashville, is situated on 48 acres of land that is less expensive than in traditional lettuce-producing regions. He said that the weather in Tennessee, which features ample sunshine and mild temperatures, is conducive to efficient greenhouse production.

Currently, about 12 acres are under glass, but the firm is poised to launch the second phase of production that will greatly increase its production.

Mr. Antle said that the facility is unique, as it is state of the art and was built specifically to grow lettuce. It was designed for deep-water floating raft technology, which is a naturally efficient process in which lettuce floats on top of a body of water that maintains consistent thermal properties. This process results in 100 percent utilization of nutrients and no waste.

The hydroponic growing process uses only as much water as the plants need. In warmer weather, shades are employed during the day to reduce light intensity. A passive evaporative cooling system is used when needed to maintain optimum growing temperatures. At night, roof vents are opened, allowing cool air to naturally chill the water.

By using nature's physical properties, the power needs of the greenhouses are greatly reduced.

In cool weather, the sun is used to naturally heat the greenhouses during the day and shades are used at night to trap the heat. The warm water and shades create a natural thermal blanket at night.

Growing "Living Lettuce" hydroponically allows for considerable water conservation, compared to conventional growing practices, because a hydroponic acre uses 98 percent less water than what is needed for a conventional acre of Butter lettuce.

In addition, the facility was ergonomically designed for employee efficiency and operational ease. The harvesting is done in a standing position, which is more efficient and easier on the worker.

While 12 acres may sound small in terms of acreage, it is quite an ambitious launch. One acre of Butter lettuce that is hydroponically grown under glass will yield about the same number of heads as 60 acres of field lettuce. "It is about a 60-to-1 ratio," Mr. Antle stated. "So our facility is producing about the same amount as 600 acres of field lettuce."

The seedlings are planted in very high density as they germinate, and then are transferred in the second stage of growth to a density of 72 heads per tray. As they mature, they are transferred to 18 heads per tray until each head is harvested. It is both the close proximity and the speed of growing that allow one acre under glass to have such a tremendous yield.

"It takes about 50 days from seed to harvest," said Mr. Antle, "which is about 20 percent faster than field production."

While a $3 head of lettuce does have somewhat of an upscale price tag, Mr. Antle said that it is not just for upscale consumers or restaurants. "Be careful of the assumptions you make," he said, revealing that the yield from each head is greater than the average head of lettuce, so there are some efficiencies gained by the use of this product.

"Living Lettuce" can be de-leafed for consumption on an as-needed basis, leaving the root system intact, which extends the shelf life. This lack of waste creates a very efficient head.

Mr. Antle said that a regular head of lettuce may yield 15 lettuce pieces for a foodservice operation making sandwiches. A head of "Living Lettuce" would surpass that, he said. In much the same way, it can be a value item for the consumer at home.

And then there are the taste and texture. One needs only to search "Living Lettuce" on the Internet to reveal many different comments from consumers raving about how good it is. It is the taste that Mr. Antle said definitely sets it apart from traditional heads of lettuce.