Produce at the Speed of Light

High-Tech Operators Take Unconventional Approach to Growing Food

Lettuce isn't a typical Midwestern crop, but Robert Colangelo's Green Sense Farms in Indiana is anything but typical. (Progressive Farmer photo by Travis Anderson)

The 30,000-square-foot building looks like nothing more than a run-of-the-mill warehouse surrounded by seemingly miles of concrete parking lot. But entering the space uncovers something far less typical -- a climate-controlled space stacked ceiling-high with perfect green plants ... all awash in an otherworldly pink light.

It's here in this space that Robert Colangelo hunches over a row of green lettuce, its leaves unmarred by aphids. Soil is curiously absent. Green Sense Farms, in Portage, Indiana, is home to one of the largest indoor commercial vertical farms in the world, growing microgreens, herbs, baby greens and lettuce year-round.

Colangelo's warehouse seems less farm production and more Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, but for lettuce. Indeed, there's a method to his madness ... and a market of consumers willing to pay for Green Sense's perfectly formed lettuces and herbs.

Walking through his pristine warehouse, it wouldn't surprise, well, anyone to learn that Colangelo has no traditional agriculture background. He does, however, hold a master's degree in earth science, specializing in hydrology, and has conducted workshops throughout the U.S. on building sustainable cities. "And the topic of urban agriculture came up," Colangelo said. "And then it kept coming up."

So that got him thinking. "There's this whole group of consumers who were conscientious of what they were eating and where food comes from," he explains. He started investigating alternative farming methods -- hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics. Then he hit on something even less conventional: vertical farming using LED lights.

OFF-THE-RACK PRODUCE

Subtract the sun. Subtract the soil. Add in plants grown in coconut husks -- great for rapid conveyance of water and nutrients. Then apply a careful prescription of light in the right colors and concentrations.

"Phillips developed the recipe for our LED lights, coming up with a pattern of red and blue diodes that work best," Colangelo said. "Those colors are the most efficient wavelengths for stimulating plant photosynthesis. By not producing the full color spectrum, we use less energy and electricity, making the lights burn cooler."

The stacks of plants reach 25 feet into the air, and all the inputs are precisely controlled. Colangelo doesn't have to contend with invasive weeds or bugs, eliminating the use of pesticides. Weather isn't a factor here. There's a certain reliability and consistency in the farming technique, and food-safety standards are top-notch.

"We conserve our resources, we recycle our water and nutrients, we don't use any tractors and aren't emitting any hydrocarbons or greenhouse gas as we plant and harvest," Colangelo said.

The produce is flavorful and harvested up to 26 times a year. Buyers include local restaurants, Whole Foods markets and nearby groceries.

Location was another carefully thought-out plan, and Green Sense Farms capitalizes on the fact that it offers produce at the literal crossroads of America. "We intentionally picked this spot for two reasons," Colangelo explained. "The iconic location at the [south end] of Lake Michigan makes this within a one-day drive of 80% of the U.S. population, and we're adjacent to five different states, able to offer them locally grown produce."

Though there are only a handful of vertical-farming ventures in the country (and statistical information is scant at best), Colangelo's isn't the only one. Since 2004, AeroFarms has been a pioneer in indoor vertical farming. It uses patented growing technology, combining aeroponics and LED lights that they custom-develop and manufacture themselves; specific growing algorithms optimize taste, texture, color, nutrition and yield. Through his research, AeroFarms cofounder and chief science officer Ed Harwood focused on deploying farming technology, leading to a faster-growing process that uses zero pesticides, at least 95% less water than traditional field farming and 30% less than hydroponic farming.

AeroFarms started out in upstate New York's Finger Lakes region marketing its products -- lettuce, herbs and other greens -- to local retailers and restaurants. AeroFarms is a mission-driven company focused on transforming global agriculture, including farms in development abroad.

Cofounder and CEO David Rosenberg, recognized by the World Economic Forum as one of the "transformational leaders in agriculture," leads the charge at AeroFarms, which recently moved its headquarters to Newark, New Jersey, where they're building a 70,000-square-foot facility being touted as the world's largest indoor vertical farm. The facility will produce up to 2 million pounds of baby leafy greens and is financially backed by Goldman Sachs and Prudential.

Rosenberg highlights tensions he sees in agriculture today: increasing population and urbanization, lack of water and arable land, dead zones from overfertilizing and use of pesticides, and safe working environments. "AeroFarms is out to fundamentally address each one of these issues with a proprietary way of growing [food] indoors safely and with a track record of operating history," he said. "And we are in a tremendous growth mode."

"We're working on ways to bring the farm to where the consumer is and offer the best product with the highest level of safety," adds cofounder and chief marketing officer Marc Oshima, who specializes in food retail and brand management. "We're focusing on a rich biodiversity, and we have grown over 250 different leafy greens and herbs. And we're working within a sustainable cost structure to get our product to as many people as possible."

FAR FROM THE FIELD?

Vertical farms certainly eschew the traditional agriculture methods in favor of more space-age-type technology. You won't find a tractor, plow or combine. Crops are limited -- neither Green Sense Farms nor AeroFarms will ever produce a wheat or corn harvest.

And, certainly, the high-quality produce attracts a certain type of consumer. Yet there are plenty of people to feed, a number that's growing exponentially while land resources remain the same.

"We're not here to compete with field farming," Colangelo said. "It's a different animal. We don't buy tractors or land. A field farm uses sun; we have to use electricity and precise delivery systems for air, water, nutrients and carbon dioxide. We're pushing all farming methods to be more responsible and sustainable."

Added Aerofarms' Oshima: "We manage the process from seed to package in one place. We're working to lead the charge that the end consumer gets the highest safety measures. Industrywide, we can help establish best practices with those in all aspects of agriculture while working to feed the world and set the safety bar high."

(BAS)