Enza Zaden is slicing its way into the booming market for leafy greens in glasshouses and plant factories, leveraging decades of experience breeding indoors for fruiting crops like tomatoes and peppers.
Eazyleaf range has delivered benefits across the supply chain for open-field lettuce with high yields, a diversity of upright shapes that are easy to harvest, and leaves that fall into beautiful uniform pieces when cut. But there are increasing opportunities for Eazyleaf in controlled environment agriculture (CEA) as well, with attractive lettuce varieties that lend themselves to the automated harvesting and hydroponic systems often found in indoor farming settings.
Kees Rodenburg, senior sales representative for heated crops at Enza Zaden USA, says the growing adoption of indoor farming has been driven by a preference for freshness and reducing food miles. “In the U.S. we have a traditional situation here whereby the majority of the leafy greens are grown in the West, but a large chunk of that is consumed in the East,” he says. “This is because the climate is ideal for outdoor growing in Arizona and California, but consumers are also starting to prefer locally grown if it’s offered.”
Enza Zaden USA’s Eazyleaf lettuce has traditionally been oriented towards growers on the West Coast who produce in open fields, and this will continue to be the case. But Rodenburg believes the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) trend will eventually capture some of that seed market.
Rodenburg explains when this trend was in its early stages, growers mostly opted to use the same genetic materials that were planted for outdoor crops. “Sometimes that worked for growers, but a lot of times it didn’t because the environment isn’t the same and growers started running into issues,” he shares. “We are at the forefront of adapting lettuce genetics to indoors, as there are not that many seed companies who are active in indoor breeding. This is not only for leafy greens but also for fruit crops like bell peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes which we have been specialists in for years.”
The attractive shelf life proposition of Eazyleaf is partly due to the smaller cutting surface on the stems, as part of what Anh Nguyen, Portfolio Manager at Enza Zaden, describes as a one-cut concept. “Processors require the product to be strong against browning when cut, and that’s why in our breeding direction we focus on the small cutting surface,” she says.
Another aspect that lends itself to vertical farming is the upright shape and 3D structure of Eazyleaf, making it ideal for automated harvesting and processing. “I see a huge benefit for indoor growing because it’s designed for automatic harvesting and automatic packing, and that’s very important because people increasingly don’t want to cut the lettuce themselves anymore,” she shares.
Consumers also prefer the extra crunch of the Eazyleaves , whose structure contributes to shelf life and freshness. Rodenburg: “A handful of flat leaves stuck on top of each other are more prone to issues than lettuce with loft and texture, to keep the salad more airy. When you open an Eazyleaf bag, it pops out thanks to the 3D leave shapes.”
Growing indoors means there is very little human interference and no need for washing the leaves. “Without much human interference, we can automatically seed Eazyleaf, grow it and harvest it straight from the harvester into a bag or a box or a clamshell as a cut product. “People don’t touch the product during the growing process, which allows for an opportunity to start advertising and educate consumers that washing is not a required for indoor grown lettuce,” Rodenburg says.
One challenge on the indoor front has been achieving the rich red colors found in some varieties within the Eazyleaf portfolio, which tinge that way partly because of the stress of UV light. “If you bring your product indoors and there’s less stress, the environment is more ideal for growing and because of that the plant is not showing its true color,” says Rodenburg. “There is a lot to be learned in terms of the kind of light spectrum you can use, the kind of light intensities, and we’re looking at stressing the plant indoors for that effect.”
Rodenburg expects it won’t be long before this technical challenge will be overcome. “We foresee in the near future a really nice range of all different kinds of leaf types and color ranges, to make individual packages appealing with beautiful mixes of different lettuce types,” he says.
Eazyleaf shapes including Oakleaf, Tango, Incised, Little Gem and Romaine, in variants of green and red, create an instantly appealing salad for consumers, who enjoy the loft, texture, variety and ease of preparation from bagged mixes or whole-head packaging. As new varieties are commercialized each year, the potential for even more intriguing mixes continues. Eazyleaf’s adaptability beyond large commercial operations to include small farm and greenhouse growth across North America is also establishing Eazyleaf varieties as key leafy players in the expanding ‘locally grown’ food trend.