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Big Box Farms, a New York City-based start-up company, has introduced what it calls breakthrough agricultural technology that will offer retailers and foodservice operators the ability to provide customers the freshest packaged salad products, sold 24 hours after harvest.

Jordan Motzkin, co-founder of Big Box Farms who is also chief executive officer, told The Produce News that the technology has been under development for the last two years in partnership with the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, ME, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The company is currently in negotiations with retailers about using the system.

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The Big Box Farms Farm Rack system optimizes space and maximizes production of salad greens, which are available for sale a mere 24 hours after harvest. (Photo courtesy of Big Box Farms)

The Big Box concept is to house controlled agriculture plots in warehouses using its proprietary patent-pending technology - the Farm Rack and the Farm Hand - to bring fresh, wholesome and pesticide-free salads to market on an as-needed basis. The plots are typically about an acre in size.

Mr. Motzkin said that while Big Box technology shares with greenhouse production the overall concept of being controlled-environment agriculture, Big Box "controls everything to a level of detail we have not seen before. Lighting, harvesting, fertilizing -- everything is automated. For example, with greenhouses, you have to be concerned with when the sun is going to shine and for how long it will shine. That is not the case with our technology."

Another advantage of the Big Box technology is that it is less resource-intensive, said Mr. Motzkin.

"In greenhouses, everyone thinks you have free light, but it is actually very expensive because you have to spend a lot on energy to heat and cool the greenhouse," he said. "In our operation, we make use of cubic feet by going vertical, so we can cut the cost of heating and cooling the space. And we use about 1 percent of land compared to field-grown product. So we can get similar production on a one-acre plot as can be grown on 100 acres in a field in California or Arizona."

This system is designed exclusively for leafy salad greens, and Big Box currently is able to produce 30 different varieties of leafy greens, including baby varieties.

The beauty of the Big Box system is that it can fit right into an existing retail operation, according to Mr. Motzkin. Or a system can be in a central location to service various retailers and foodservice distributors in an area.

"We can go to the distribution center and develop a custom program according to a retailer's needs," he said. "If they want a certain type of mix, we can develop that. Or if they want it packaged in a certain way in a clamshell, we can do that for them. And we can tailor how we grow the crop and when we release it for harvest depending on when they need them. So we are not tied to seasons like California and Arizona are, and we can schedule shipments to arrive on certain days if they need them. We call it 'Grown to Order,' which is developing a program with a private label that works best for them."

Product grown with the Big Box system is cleaner, with no worries about E. coli or other pathogens, said Mr. Motzkin, who added that while product is not organic per se, because organic has to be grown in soil and Big Box does not use a soil medium, it does use organic non-GMO seeds and no pesticides are used.

"So we consider our product better than organic because it is really a pure product," he said.

Mr. Motzkin said that he sees health-conscious consumers as the target market for product grown under the Big Box system.

"This is really all about people getting the freshest possible product," he said. "Freshness equals a healthy product equals a healthy lifestyle, and the more healthy our product the healthier the consumer. That's what we see the whole local movement is all about.

"In some cases, lettuce spends six days in transit, it has already lost half of its nutrient content by the time it reaches the consumer," he continued. "By getting into the store and into the hands of the consumer more quickly, we can maintain a greater amount of that nutritional value."

Aside from Mr. Motzkin, executives at Big Box Farms include Sam Miller-McDonald, chief operating officer and also a co-founder; and Chuck Weiss, chairman, who has extensive experience and corporate management and management consulting and formerly was vice president of a $700 million division of RJR/Nabisco.