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Natural Grocers Growing Its GardenBox Program

Lakewood, Colo.Michael Boardman knows it takes exactly 82 steps to get from the GardenBox to the produce display at Natural Grocers’ store in Green Mountain – Lakewood.

Boardman manages the first of what could eventually be more Natural Grocers GardenBoxes, a shipping container-based farm that grows several organic lettuce varieties right behind the store it supplies. That means instead of spending about 10 days going from a farm to a distribution center to a truck to a display case — losing about half of its nutritional value and shelf life in the process — the fresh greens go immediately from the container farm to the aisle.

That’s how Boardman knows it takes precisely 82 steps to walk to what ends up being a vibrant, colorful produce display: he’s done it a few times.

The use of a GardenBox could be a sign of what’s to come. More retailers (and consumers, for that matter) that specialize in healthy living are learning that produce doesn’t need to be shipped in from elsewhere. Natural Grocers is taking its pilot program to the next level, with the help of Colorado-based FarmBox Foods, an innovative company that designs, builds and sells the automated, controlled-climate container farms.

Boardman is creating the GardenBox playbook from scratch. He spent weeks developing a nutrient blend that allows Natural Grocers leafy greens to maintain their certified organic status, while enabling the produce to thrive in a hydroponic farm. So far, the company has tried 8 types of lettuce with great success.

To help promote the idea of produce growing outside the store where it’s sold, Natural Grocers gave away about 1,000 heads of lettuce in late June. The produce is now being sold at the Green Mountain – Lakewood location.

“People have loved it. They have been really impressed with it. It’s definitely a much better tasting green, and it’s fresher,” he said.

Boardman, who has spent 8 years with Natural Grocers and also has a background as a produce buyer, said there are “very few products on the market that are living,” pointing out that shoppers who buy heads of lettuce grown in a GardenBox can actually keep them alive in water until they’re eaten.

From alkindus, brentwood to hampton lettuce and mirlo lettuce, there’s plenty to be excited about. Boardman, who particularly enjoys the incredibly flavorful Marciano red butterhead lettuce grown in the GardenBox, says his favorite aspect of the process has been learning what works best to get the plants to thrive.

“Figuring out the solution to it, how to do this organically and sustainably, and watching this grow and be successful has been the best part,” he said.

The Vertical Hydroponic Farm used to grow the produce can simultaneously hold about 11,000 plants in various stages of growth, including about 7,000 seedlings. The plants go from seed to harvest all within the 320-square-foot space in the GardenBox purchased from FarmBox Foods. It’s a game-changer for helping decentralize the food supply chain and empowering individual communities.

To learn more, go to www.naturalgrocers.com/gardenbox. For more information about FarmBox Foods, visit www.farmboxfoods.com.