Why should a greenhouse worker be granted an 0-1 Visa? The document is granted by the US government only to non-citizens who demonstrate “extraordinary ability or achievement.” For Dutchman Pieter Slaman, it’s because he had proprietary knowledge of commercial horticulture that was needed for a new high-tech lettuce farm in Devens. Slaman is a fourth-generation grower from the Netherlands, where over a century of experimentation has made the Dutch experts in sustainable-agriculture practices. He hails from near the Hague, where an industry cluster of greenhouses gave the area the nickname “glass city.” Slaman , 50, grew up “between the tomatoes,” starting his first greenhouse when he was just 17 years old. Now he uses his “green fingers” to grow 4 million plants in a 3-acre greenhouse at Little Leaf Farms, an agribusiness that produces arugula and other greens on a relatively small footprint. While the majority of lettuce is shipped in from the West Coast, Little Leaf Farms produce goes from harvest to supermarket shelf within a day of harvest. The Globe spoke with Slaman about how he’s making a life out of lettuce.
“Both of my grandparents and many other relatives had a greenhouse in the Netherlands, so it’s in my blood. One grew lettuce and the others, flowers and bulb plants. Dutch farmers have been growing indoors for years, using sunlight and rainwater to compensate for our agriculturally-challenged geography. I heard stories from my dad about the World War II resistance and how my family hid escaping Jews under the greenhouse floor. The region was the biggest horticultural producer in the world, providing the whole of Europe with vegetables. But times have changed, and I wanted to travel the world to see if I could grow things elsewhere. Little Leaf contacted me and said they needed a Dutch grower. They had a greenhouse they were building in New England and wanted to do it ‘right’ — no pesticides, collecting rainwater for irrigation, LED lights.
“When I first arrived in Boston, it was the second week of February, minus 20 degrees celsius, and very cold and snowy. The first couple of months, I’m thinking in Dutch and talking in English. There were many cultural differences. I had to adjust to working with a Mexican crew instead of a Polish one. I missed having a neighborhood of other growers around me. And I quickly learned that if something broke, I couldn’t just jump into the car and go to the nearest greenhouse supplier, especially with metric parts. I had to order and wait, and this could be a problem, because a crop can die within six hours without water. But we were able to set up a highly advanced, automated hydroponic system. Even with that, it’s not easy to grow lettuce in New England’s erratic weather. But in the end, growing is nothing more than taking the stress away from the crop.
“An expert’s eye, the many years of experience, and a grower’s passion make the difference and can never be taken over by a computer and data. I can just step into the greenhouse and instinctively know whether the humidity or temperature is too high or low. I spend many hours a week, just walking, scouting, and turning over leaves to see what kind of bugs I can find. This is something I’ve been doing my whole life. After all, everything around us has a connection. That’s why I pray in the greenhouse and do yoga in my free time. It’s all about time and balance. And that’s true for plants — and for humans.”