Bathed in pink light, rows of identical plants are thriving in an indoor Eden at 65 F – over 700 trays of lettuce stacked 25’ toward the ceiling that translate to 1,500 cases of perfect produce per week. Green Sense Farms, Portage, Ind., is the largest indoor, vertical farm in the United States, and is scrambling to meet demand.
Green Sense Farms is the largest indoor, vertical farm in the United States. Plain-spoken CEO and founder 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. The best way for Green Sense Farms to solve world hunger is create a profitable indoor vertical farm.”
Located in an industrial warehouse, Green Sense utilizes two climate-controlled grow rooms for a total growing area of approximately 200,000 cubic feet. One room contains 400 4’x8’ trays of baby greens, culinary herbs and micro-greens, and the second houses the 700 trays of lettuce.
Adios to Weather
Colangelo, along with CFO Carl Wenz and plant manager Lane Patterson, take weather out of the farming equation by growing indoors in a controlled environment and creating optimum plant conditions each day. He uses a modified hydroponic system where the temperature, light, humidity, water, and nutrient levels are consistent each day of the year.
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 germination room from one to three days – dark, hot and humid. They are next placed in a nursery for up to 20 days; and then onto grow towers for 10 to 20 days. Water and nutrients are pumped in, and then gravity drained and recirculated. Green Sense uses no pesticides or GMOs.
Colangelo uses approximately 10,000 4’ foot Phillips LED growth strips in place of sunlight. Efficiency of LED light is measured by micromoles of light produced per joule of electrical energy. “Phillips creates the lights with the best value. Most plant photosynthesis occurs at the red and blue light and we mimic that with red and blue LED diodes. We get maximum photosynthetic value from our lighting system without producing much heat or using a lot of electricity,” Colangelo details. 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 had to use fluorescent lights, we’d need two full-time employees just to replace and order bulbs.”
LEDs also use less electricity – about a third as much used by fluorescent lights to get the same amount of plant growth – and produce lower amounts of heat requiring less energy to cool the growing rooms for optimum temperature balance. Different plants require specific light recipes that optimize LED wavelength according to crop. (Phillips is currently building a database of light recipes based on plant variety.) The plants remain under LED illumination for 18 to 22 hours each day. Leaving the lights on 24 hours per day doesn’t kill the crops, but creates a point of diminishing returns, Colangelo notes. The extra cost to run the lights isn’t offset by additional plant growth.
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. 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.”
Feeding The Market
Green Sense’s indoor system is built on technology developed over the last 40 to 50 years – controlling light, air temperature and carbon dioxide for the top part of plants. However, it also involves controlling fertilization, water and oxygen levels in the root section of plants. The challenge includes finding the desired medium for optimal growth, and Giacomelli says Colangelo will be tweaking that for the rest of his career. “This is the future for some crops and the quality may be better than in-field produce. Quality is initially related 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.”
Ideally located near 20 million people within a 100-mile radius, Green Sense’s main market is Chicago. Colangelo’s produce goes from farm to table in 24 hours. “We’ll harvest in the morning and the truck picks it up in the afternoon and it’s at a given store the next morning,” Colangelo describes. With no diesel, land, or field equipment costs, he hopes to build a network of vertical farms. Colangelo is in discussion with hospitals, colleges and food distribution centers to locate future farms.
Coast to Coast?
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. 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 with deep pockets. As the market grows, systems like 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, but at the same time 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. Colangelo is keenly aware that Green Sense is at the tip of the vertical farming spear in the U.S., and he doesn’t dole out boilerplate regarding the future. “Profit. People across the board understand profit. Make money and you can change behavior. People may get confused about environmental approaches that are profitable, but if you make money in a sustainable manner, they pay attention. Our goals are to build a profitable farm using state of the art indoor growing technology -- not to solve world hunger. Sure, we do a lot of work for charity and food banks, but if you want investors and long-term attention, you must have profit – and that’s our bottom line.”