Operating a Profitable Farm Indoors

Operating a Profitable Farm Indoors

Vertical farming’s forefront at Green Sense

Bathed in pink light, rows of identical plants are thriving in an indoor Eden at 65°F. More than 700 trays of lettuce stacking 25' toward the ceiling translate to 1,500 cases of perfect produce per week. Micro-greens, leafy greens and culinary herbs are also growing—and Green Sense Farms, Portage, Ind., is scrambling to meet demand. This is no fad or short-term presence, but a new way to grow, along with greenhouses and field production.

Green Sense Farms is the largest indoor, vertical farm in the U.S. Plain-spoken CEO and founder Robert 
Colangelo doesn’t rely on platitudes or offer agriculture a lofty panacea. “I sometimes see others making false claims about the sustainability of their ventures,” he says. “The best way for Green Sense Farms to solve world hunger is to create a profitable indoor vertical farm.”

Located in an industrial warehouse, Green Sense uses two climate-controlled grow rooms for a total growing area of 200,000 cubic feet. One room contains 400 4'x8' trays of baby greens, culinary herbs and micro-greens, and the second houses 700 trays of lettuce.

At 200,000 cubic feet, from left, Carl Wenz, Lane Patterson and Robert Colangelo run Green Sense Farms, the largest indoor vertical farm in the U.S.

Colangelo takes weather out of the equation by growing produce in a controlled environment, creating optimum plant conditions each day. Along with chief financial officer Carl Wenz and plant manager Lane Patterson, he uses a modified hydroponic system where the temperature, light, humidity, water and nutrient levels are consistent every day.

The crops are grown in coconut coir (ground-up husks) in three ways: compressed husks with netting for use with an automated seeding machine, loose coconut coir for broadcasting seed and seeded in pots with loose coir. From seed, plants go into a dark, hot and humid germination room for one to three days. Next, they go to the nursery for up to 20 days and then to grow towers for 10 to 20 days. Water and nutrients are pumped in, then gravity drained and recirculated. Green Sense uses no pesticides or GMOs.

Colangelo uses 10,000 Phillips LED 4' growth strips in place of sunlight. He’s able to mimic photosynthesis 
using red and blue LED diodes. An LED, compared with a fluorescent light, costs more to purchase, but produces light far more efficiently. LED longevity also allows Green Sense to save on labor costs. 

“If we used fluorescent lights, we’d need two full-time employees just to replace and order bulbs,” he says.

Compared to fluorescent lights, LEDs use less electricity and produce lower amounts of heat, requiring less energy to cool the growing rooms to optimum temperature balance. Different plants require specific light recipes that optimize LED wavelength according to crop. The plants remain under LEDs for 18 to 22 hours a day. Leaving the lights on 24 hours per day doesn’t kill the crops, but it creates a point of diminishing returns, Colangelo explains. 

As Colangelo worked to get Green Sense started, he leaned heavily on the expertise of Gene Giacomelli, 
director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson. 

“Robert may think I helped him a lot, but really, I confirmed details he was already hoping were correct,” Giacomelli says. “Vertical farming requires dealing with irrigation distribution and environmental controls for air temperature and humidity. We already do both of those in greenhouses with the sun, but the difference is artificial lighting in a closed building. The big sticking point of vertical farming is the cost of lighting, but efficiency keeps reducing costs.”

Green Sense’s indoor system is built on technology developed during the past 40 to 50 years. Controlling light, air temperature and carbon dioxide for the top part of plants are essential. However, it also involves controlling fertilization, water and oxygen levels in the root system. The challenge includes finding the desired medium for optimal growth. Giacomelli says Colangelo will be tweaking that for the rest of his career. 

“This is the future for some crops, and the quality might be better than in-field produce,” Giacomelli says. “Quality is initially linked to genetic variety, but true potential comes from the environment where a plant is grown. Provide an optimal environment, and the plant will respond accordingly with maximum nutrition. 

“That can happen indoors with every crop. If fresh, nutritional produce without a speck of dust is important—and it is to a growing number of consumers—then vertical farming will feed that market,” he adds.

Ideally located near 20 million people within a 100-mile radius, Green Sense’s primary market is Chicago. Colangelo’s produce goes from farm to table in 24 hours. 

“We’ll harvest in the morning, the truck picks it up in the afternoon and it’s at a given store the next morning,” Colangelo explains. 

With no diesel, land or field equipment costs, he hopes to build a network of vertical farms. He is currently in 
discussion with hospitals, colleges and food distribution centers to determine possible locations for future farms.

Giacomelli believes indoor farms have the potential to go coast-to-coast in major U.S. cities, possibly in less than 20 years. 

“Their future depends on price and that’s one of the beauties of our nation—price rules,” Giacomelli says. “People normally flock toward price, but that’s not necessarily true when affluence levels offer people unique health choices. The market is growing, and it contains people who have deep pockets. As the market grows, systems such as Robert’s will have to keep up with demand.”

The battle raging over vertical farming centers on cost-effectiveness. Colangelo admits the high electric costs is a challenge, but at the same time it is making his labor more efficient and decreasing input costs. All the while, he’s keeping his tools sharp: hydroponics, LED lights and cooling capabilities. 

“Our goals are to build a profitable farm using state of the art indoor growing technology—not to solve world hunger,” Colangelo says. 

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Spell Check

Lauren Woodley
Logan, UT
12/11/2015 02:36 PM

  That's really cool that you can create a thriving garden indoors. As you show, these plants are thriving under pink light and are being picked up regularly and shipped out. That is really cool, and I would assume that these types of methods and technology are helping evolve and develop the world of farming. Thank you for sharing!

Robin Johnson
Clinton, IN
1/22/2018 05:31 PM

  I am interested in starting up a indoor farm in our small warehouse approx 1000 sq ft in a town in West Central Indiana of approx 6000 people . I feel we have perfect place to start up indoor farm and a good marketing area for our veg and easy to grow indoor fruit ( strawberries ) ? Any input would be great .

Mike Gill
Columbus , OH
1/30/2018 08:20 AM

  I have some acreage and about $250,000. I’ve believe in vertical gardening and would love to start a farm but is it even feasible for my situation? Or are we talking millions need invested?


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