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Finger Lakes Fresh: Business with a Conscience

By Emily Getty ’08

Finger Lakes Fresh
Challenge President Patrick McKee (left) and Finger Lakes Fresh greenhouse manager Bob LaDue ’93 watch over their crisp produce.

Fresh, crisp, clean, and for a cause. Finger Lakes Fresh is providing New York State and six other eastern states with locally produced lettuce with a zesty twist. What began as a CALS research project on using controlled environment agriculture (CEA) to produce agricultural products year round in New York has evolved into a business with a conscience through a partnership with Challenge Industries of Ithaca.

The technology behind the hydroponics greenhouse uses precise climate control coupled with Cornell-developed improvements in lettuce “plugs” and precision lighting. Researchers in Biological and Environmental Engineering (BEE) and Horticulture worked collaboratively to produce pest- and chemical-free lettuce heads of consistent high quality year round.

Professor Lou Albright ’63, MS ’65, PhD ’72 of BEE developed the algorithms behind the proprietary computer program that controls the lighting. The light reaching the plants is adjusted through a combination of high-pressure sodium supplemental lights and automated shades under the greenhouse’s roof. Horticulture professor emeritus Robert Langhans MS ’54, PhD ’56 and doctoral student David Dreesen ’88 improved the production of the plugs.

Using a workforce of employees with disabilities to provide highquality, local vegetables year round, Finger Lakes Fresh, a division of Challenge Industries, is an environmentally friendly alternative to products shipped from afar. Finger Lakes Fresh grows several varieties of lettuce, arugula, baby pak choi, basil, and a salad bouquet. Providing an innovative workforce solution for the most labor-intensive parts of production and creating jobs for workers with disabilities and other employment barriers, this model has potential for replication and expansion in other areas of agricultural production.