Lettuce farm

David Stone/Special to the Telegram

Marshall McDaniel stands between lettuce lines at TrueHarvest Farm in Belton. The lettuce operation breaks ground on a new 3.5 acre growing facility in July that will increase production to about 8 million heads a year. The farm currently employs about 10 people.

BELTON — A massive indoor lettuce farm in Belton is about to get much larger.

TrueHarvest Farms, a 54,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse, is planning a 3.5-acre indoor addition that will more than quadruple annual production.

“We’re going to break ground on the new greenhouse in July,” said Marshall McDaniel, one of the owners of the farm. “We will be able grow about 8 million heads of lettuce every year.”

That’s a lot of salad!

All of the produce is grown hydroponically and free of pesticides.

The expansion will allow TrueHarvest to expand its product line and reach new customers through service contracts and supermarkets.

Currently, the farm supplies the Temple and Belton school districts with lettuce and sells produce at Sprouts, Brookshire Brothers and United grocery stores. McDaniel said the company needs the expansion to meet growing demand.

“We’ve been talking with H-E-B and school districts in the Austin area and throughout Central Texas,” he said. “Increasing production will let us expand our customer base.”

McDaniel said a prospective customer after expansion will be SodexoUSA, a food services company that provides meals for many nursing homes and colleges, including the University of Mary Hardin Baylor.

Right now, TrueHarvest grows five varieties of lettuce, said Jason Maks, McDaniel’s partner. But that could be just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended).

“We’re growing FinStar from seeds we obtained in Finland,” Maks said. “It’s a member of the iceberg family but has better nutritional value. We also grow a Monte Carlo Romaine that has big, dark green leaves perfect for salads or wraps.”

Other products include Frisee, a Red Oak Leaf and Butterhead.

“Butter is our best seller,” Maks said. “We also package the Frisee, Red Oak and FinStar as a mix.”

McDaniel said the five varieties being produced were selected for their ability to grow in a Central Texas greenhouse environment.

“We’ve experimented with probably 60 to 80 varieties,” he said. “The five we’ve selected best fit our needs.”

But, McDaniel added, more than greenhouse space will be expanded in the next year.

“We’ll be adding some new products,” he said. “We get a lot of requests for spinach and arugula.”

The new greenhouse will be fully automated from seed to harvest. The current operation is about 75 percent automated, McDaniel said.

“Once the new greenhouse is operational, produce won’t be touched by human hands,” he said.

Riding the steadily increasing demand for locally grown produce, TrueHarvest Farms grows fresh and pesticide-free head lettuce in a controlled environment 365 days a year.

“The climate here in Texas makes year-round field growing of leafy greens impossible, and like the rest of America, Texas has relied heavily on lettuce trucked in from California and Arizona for a substantial part of the year,” McDaniel said.

Once expansion is complete, TrueHarvest will be distributing fresh, nutritious and safe locally grown lettuce to stores within a 250 miles radius of Belton, he said.

“The lettuce will be available to the customer in less than 24 hours of harvesting,” he said.

Recent food safety scares in the lettuce industry have led to an increased interest in safe and clean lettuce produced in a controlled environment.

TrueHarvest implements a closed system, meaning everything that goes into the greenhouse is controlled. This system makes it possible to not only keep the lettuce clean, but also to grow it without using any chemical pesticides. The irrigation water, air and growing medium are controlled and monitored for cleanliness, keeping consumers safe and the environment protected, they said.

“There is an enormous demand for locally grown and safe lettuce today,” Maks said.

After seeding and germination, TrueHarvest Farm’s plants are placed in an automatic growing system. As the plants grow, they are moved automatically through the greenhouse toward the harvesting station.

Although TrueHarvest began lettuce production in 2019, its roots run far deeper.

Today’s operation evolved from a hay and pecan operation that started on the 1,000-acre Chet Dixon farm west of Belton in 1979. The farm recently expanded its pecan orchard and also grows corn and wheat. But, the focus of McDaniel and Maks is lettuce.

They said their goal for TrueHarvest Farm is epitomized in their slogan: “Rooted in Belton, TX”.

The farm is near the intersection of Wheat and Sparta roads.

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