Hydroponic indoor farming is the future of local food
Farms don't often get funding from venture capitalists.
But 80 Acres Farm in Winton Place just got a big financing round from a private equity group from California.
And BrightFarms, an advanced greenhouse operation in various locations, got $55 million in investments in June, and $9 million of that is going toward expanding their operations in Wilmington.
These indoor farming operations, which mostly grow greens, herbs and lettuce, are part of a wave of a new kind of farming that is building capacity all over the country. The sector more than tripled from 2015-2017 and has now come to the Cincinnati area.
80 Acres is an indoor farm with a completely controlled indoor environment without soil, rain or sunlight. At BrightFarms, a hydroponic greenhouse, there's no soil, and sunlight is supplemented with artificial light. Another indoor farming company, Waterfields, has been growing microgreens for restaurants in both greenhouses and warehouses for years.
Ironically, not far from 80 Acres and one of Waterfields' locations, there used to be a cluster of thriving tomato greenhouses. They went into a long fatal decline as agriculture consolidated in California and Florida, and there wasn't a place left for local producers. But the pendulum has swung back.
Now many consumers want locally grown food, and these farms are a natural response. They may not be the small, organic, diversified operations that local food advocates first had in mind. But they aim to address problems that have been pointed out in the current agricultural system, particularly the long delivery chain that brings most produce to market. But this is a difficult business to get into; quite a few operations have gone out of business. And while technology solves some problems, it has its own drawbacks.
Mike Zelkind, the CEO of 80 Acres, has worked for 40 years in the food industry, moving from frozen to canned to fresh food. He knows food supply chains. He likes to show graphics that detail the typical route of a bag of greens from farm to consumer. From field to packer to cold storage to trucks and distribution centers and warehouses, there is a multitude of steps. At each stop, the produce gets older, less nutritious and a little more is wasted. The lettuce and cherry tomatoes from 80 Acres need none of that to get to local customers. "The technology we use replaces all that steel on the supply chain," he said.
he tech is impressive. The facility in Winton Place is as far from an earthy, muddy traditional farm as you can imagine. You have to wipe your feet before you enter the farm. The 1/4 acre building that replaces 80 acres of land is a series of grow zones, rooms with environments perfect for one crop.
There is an herb room, a lettuce and greens room, a place to grow cherry tomatoes and baby cucumbers on vines that climb on single wires. They are experimenting with table grapes and strawberries.
It's all eerily lit by purple LED lights. The plants are rooted in a soil-less grow mat and fed a liquid solution that is the right recipe for that plant and its stage of growth. They have air moving over them to stress them in just the right way. The air is condensed, the water analyzed, so that the growers know what the plants have taken in and what they need. They do not use pesticides. "We grow food in a clean, consistent way," said Zelkind.
One of the advantages of indoor farming is that it eliminates some kinds of risks. An extended tour Zelkind took to talk to farmers was one inspiration for 80 Acres. "They were constantly struggling to do well in bad years," he said. Weather and other uncontrollable factors are a constant unknown factor in farming. That risk is another thing the technology seeks to replace.
Bright Farms has many of the same benefits of a vertical farm without quite as much technological control. They grow greens in huge glass houses. "When we don't have sun for heat, we use a boiler system," said Paul Lightfoot, CEO. "When the sun doesn't have enough light, we use supplemental lighting. We use a lot less water. We don't use pesticides and we're herbicide-free."
He also points out that localized growers are able to build a product for flavor, not transport durability. "The product is grown for customers, not the supply chain." The greenhouse in Wilmington offers good year-round jobs – badly needed in Wilmington – in harvesting, packaging and maintenance. They pay a living wage and offer benefits.
The critiques of indoor farming have to do with the practice's energy use and the limitations on what can be grown.
First, there's the irony of paying for energy that contributes to global warming instead of using free sunlight. 80 Acres is working on lowering their energy use. LEDs are becoming more efficient, they're experimenting with using an anaerobic digester to convert waste into energy, and they buy renewable energy from Duke.
It's very expensive to build and maintain a indoor farm facility, (hence the venture capital) and the end product is more expensive. So only crops that can command a premium price make sense. The pristine freshness and flavor of 80 Acre or Bright Farms' local lettuce, greens and herbs do offer a value some might pay extra for. Plus they grow quickly for frequent harvests. But when it comes to "feeding the planet," it would be very difficult to grow and sell more nutrient-dense foods like potatoes or beans this way because you can't charge a premium for a fresh potato.
"For everyone who's started (in this sector), someone has failed," said Daniel Klemens of Waterfields. "There's so much price pressure from retailers, it's hard to get it right." Waterfields' goal when they started out was idealistic, but in a different way. It was to create agricultural jobs in the city. So they decided on high-margin crops that take a short time to produce. They grow microgreens and some specialty salad mixes. "We are focused on quality and consistency for our customers," said Klemens. Those are mostly chefs who want the decoration and pop of flavor that pretty tiny leaves can add to a dish.
Working with nonprofits like the Urban League and Santa Maria Community Services, they have hired 12 hard-to-employ people and given them good jobs and promotions. And their pretty little red-veined leaves show up on a lot of beautiful photos of Cincinnati restaurant food. They make no claims about feeding the hungry or changing the food systems.
But Zelkind has a lofty vision that includes fresh food in places that don't have it and contributing to a better way of distributing food. He says their precision technology has driven down costs. Their next step is a new facility in Hamilton that will be completely automated. In a competitive field, he thinks their investment in technology will make local food more easily available.