How sustainable is your controlled environment operation?

If you haven’t considered labor as a sustainability issue, your company may not be as sustainable as you think.

by David Kuack


When compared to traditional field agriculture businesses, many controlled environment growers may assume their operations are much more sustainable in regards to energy and water use, waste generation and pest management practices. In some cases, they’d be wrong. If you are not considering labor when implementing a sustainability program, your operation may never attain the results you’re trying to achieve.

The overlooked sustainability issue

When you think of the most important controlled environment sustainability issues, labor may not even be on your list. Labor is typically one of the most overlooked sustainability issues.

“Like some growers, I’ve come to the realization a little later than I should have that labor is a sustainability issue that needs to be addressed,” said A.J. Both, who is an agricultural engineer at Rutgers University. “Some growers and engineers, typically think of addressing labor by incorporating mechanization and automation. While that certainly is doable, it is also expensive.

“Company owners and growers typically look at automation and mechanization first before they look at the bigger picture. Their first need is to make a profit to keep the company operating and rightly so. But we also need to look more at the industry’s societal impact.”

Both said as a result of labor shortages in many industries, engineers will continue to work on mechanization and automation.

“At the same time, the agricultural industry needs to consider how controlled environment production impacts local communities and how it impacts the availability of jobs,” he said. “In the long run, mechanization and automation has the potential to remove and add job opportunities to the marketplace.”

When considering implementing a sustainability program for a controlled environment operation, labor should be included on the list of issues that need to be addressed. Photo courtesy of A.J. Both, Rutgers Univ.

Sustainability starts with your employees

One controlled environment agricultural company that has made its employees an integral component of its sustainability program is Local Bounti (NYSE: LOCL, LOCL.WT). Headquartered in Hamilton, Mont., the company began operating a 1½-acre leafy greens greenhouse facility in 2020. Through the acquisition of the Pete’s Living Greens brand earlier this year, the publically-traded company has expanded to four controlled environment facilities in three states with 34 acres of production area.

“In order for Local Bounti to execute its environmental, social and governance (ESG) program, we really have to think about what is most important to the company, which is our employees and our communities,” said Gary Hilberg, chief sustainability officer at Local Bounti. “Local Bounti has committed to paying a living wage. I work with our HR and leadership teams to evaluate what we are paying to ensure our employees receive a living wage.

“In today’s world with the lack of labor, companies are going to end up paying higher wages anyway. You might as well get ahead of the issue. Not only do we pay a living wage, but every one of our employees receives full benefits from Day 1.”

Hilberg said one of the easiest sustainability issues to accomplish has been employee engagement.

“Employees are the key to conducting sustainability programs,” he said. “We have to partner internally with our employees or it will turn into a paper program and we’re not big fans of paper programs. The exciting and easiest part of employee engagement is when our employees hear about our sustainability efforts, they engage us and push us to be better.”

At Local Bounti’s Montana facility waste was considered a second-order sustainability issue.

“Our employees pushed reducing waste to the front of our radar screen,” Hilberg said. “They not only made us aware of the problem, but they came up with solutions which we implemented. In our first year we landfilled 100 percent of our waste. We were able to reduce that to less than 50 percent in the first half of this year. Anyone looking to initiate a sustainability program, having employees engaged makes solving sustainability issues a lot easier.”

Local Bounti, a producer of greenhouse leafy greens headquartered in Hamilton, Mont., has made its employees an integral component of its sustainability program. Photo courtesy of Local Bounti

The benefits of locally-grown

Hilberg said being a local grower enables Local Bounti to dramatically reduce the average shipping distances for its products.

“The loss of produce through shipping can be very dramatic,” he said. “For the traditional agriculture market, most leafy greens are grown in California, Arizona and Mexico and then shipped thousands of miles to packaging facilities and the retail partners. The produce is handled multiple times before it reaches the retailers’ shelves. By the time consumers take the product home, there are only a couple days of shelf life left.

“The advantage of our controlled environment facilities is what is harvested is packaged and in a cooler the same day. By reducing the transportation miles, we are dramatically reducing waste. We are targeting to provide our customers ready-to-eat products with 20+ days of the best buy date.”

Growers looking to develop sustainability programs for their operations may be more focused on reducing energy and water use, waste generation and pest management practices and not on labor. Photo courtesy of A.J. Both, Rutgers Univ.

Because Local Bounti’s retail customers use regional distribution centers to deliver produce to their stores, the company is looking to expand its number of production facilities.

“We are looking at trying to be within 400 miles of the distribution centers,” Hilberg said. “We figure our leafy greens will arrive in the stores in two to three days depending on how fast our retail partners ship our products from their distribution centers.

“Being local we decided to try to solve the issue of having to ship our products thousands of miles. Right now we are shipping our products longer distances because there is demand for them and we don’t have production facilities close enough. By working with our customers we are siting where our future production facilities need to be located in order to be closer to them. When we finish building out our facility base we will have the ability to deliver to our customers in a short distance.”

Hilberg said consumers respect companies that promote they are local.

“We brand our products with the locations where they are grown whether it comes from California, Montana or Georgia,” he said. By branding our products we are not only selling products that are locally grown, but we are also developing people in these communities. We are investing in and developing people, which allows them to grow too.”

Local Bounti brands its products with their growing locations to promote locally-grown and the company’s efforts to develop people in those communities. Photo courtesy of Local Bounti

For more: A.J. Both, Rutgers University, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Department of Environmental Sciences;; Local Bounti, (800) 640-4016;;

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas;