Just a few blocks away from the big Motel 6 that sits along Highway 101 on the north end of Carpinteria, the whole life cycle of lettuce is marching forward, minute by minute.
It starts as a seed, coated in a protective protein that helps with germination, and drops into a cell of peat moss, purchased by the truckload from Canada. It’s watered and then moves methodically through acres of greenhouse, the sights shifting from brown squares to bright green sprigs, the aromas from rich soil to young vegetation. As the lettuce roots grow, they soak directly in flowing water, sucking up nutrients as needed.
Within a few weeks, when the heads are large, leafy, and ready to eat, the butter lettuce, watercress, and other species are loaded intact, roots and all, into plastic clam shells. They’re then shipped to grocery stores throughout the United States, where you’ll find them for sale as Pete’s Living Greens, though also under other proprietary labels.
This is the ever-innovating vision of Peter Overgaag, a third-generation greenhouse grower whose parents came from Holland to start growing cut flowers in Carpinteria in the 1960s. Founded in 1970, their Hollandia Produce brand thrived into his parents’ generation. By the mid-1980s, Overgaag was experimenting with new crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers. But like flowers, those were commodity crops, the price set by others, the competition fierce.
They eventually tried lettuce and developed a niche for “living” crops, grown hydroponically and sold with the roots on, the plants still essentially alive. About 10 years ago, they shifted entirely to lettuce and cress species, and last year, they rebranded the company as Pete’s Living Greens. You can find them in many grocery stores around the country, from Vons to Whole Foods, as well as restaurants such as Via Vai in Montecito’s Upper Village, where people always rave about the butter lettuce salad.
“Having a niche product, we were able to set our pricing and get a better return,” said Overgaag. “Then the market acceptance grew with that. Consumers appreciate how fresh it is. We like to say that you’re harvesting it yourself at home because it’s still living plant. It could just as well be in your garden, pulling leaves off of a lettuce plant.”
From the outside, Pete’s Living Greens’ 17 acres of white and gray greenhouses in Carpinteria don’t look much different than the rest of their neighbors, some still growing cut flowers, many now growing cannabis. The company also runs a greenhouse complex in Oxnard, where about half of the 150 employees work, focused on organic offerings.
These employees, in fact, actually own the company, as Overgaag recently moved toward an employment stock ownership plan, or ESOP. That gave his employees equity but also provided an ability to raise capital to invest further in operations.
Along with rolling trays of green-leafed tables as far as the eye can see, the system relies on hydroponics, in which an endless flow of water is recirculated through the greenhouses, cleaned up and amended in a gurgling pump room. It seems space age, but it’s nothing new.
“It’s more modern in that it’s more widespread now, but there have been people dabbling in it for over 100 years,” said Overgaag, who added that even the Romans had troughs with plants growing in water. “We’re able to quickly give the plants exactly what they need, all of the various elements like iron, calcium, and potassium. The plants are able to take them up very easily, whereas in the soil, those roots could be all over the place, but the elements they need aren’t there.”
It’s also an all-season operation, whether it’s rainy, windy, hot, cold, or, as recently experienced during the Thomas Fire, smoky and ashy. “We closed our roofs to keep the ash out, but we had a pretty good environment inside,” said Overgaag. “Everyone was still wearing masks, and we did take off blocks of time when it was not conducive to working, but in general, we kept the wheels turning here.”
More typical annoyances include aphid-like bugs and the occasional bird that sneaks in, but neither tend to cause all that much harm if caught quickly. As such, the steadily moving system is a very efficient use of space, using reportedly 85 percent less water and 70 percent less land than traditional farming. And the packaging is 100 percent recyclable.
The innovation never stops, from the “bouquets” of three different lettuces in one clam shell to the open-top shipping boxes that use 40 percent less cardboard while being better for cooling. “That’s the kind of thing we’re always working on,” said Overgaag.
These days, the lettuce found in many a refrigerator is the pre-washed, bagged stuff. But according to Overgaag, that gets a chlorinated rinse and then is dried out and blasted with nitrogen to stop spoiling. But once the bag is opened, the nitrogen escapes, and the leaves start to turn pretty quickly. On the other hand, Pete’s Living Greens can supposedly stay fresh in the fridge for about 18 days, about three to five times the length of the bagged salads.
“The butter lettuce is my favorite,” said Overgaag, who likes it with some walnuts, cranberries, or maybe a diced pear with balsamic dressing. They also sell heads of red butter lettuce; a “living strip” with a range of greens, including endive, escarole, baby romaine, and more; and the increasingly popular cresses, specifically upland cress and watercress. “The cresses are kind of peppery like a radish, so occasionally I’ll have a salad with goat cheese and raspberries and balsamic, but it’s really good on sandwiches too.”
He’s also quick to note that watercress scored number one on a nutrient density scale by William Paterson University in 2014, where kale landed at a measly 15. “Everyone is excited about kale,” said Overgaag, “but watercress is super nutritious.”
It’s unlikely that this story ends there. Said Overgaag, “I’m always on the lookout for other crops from smaller operations popping up around the country.”