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Vertical Farm Is on the Way Up In Nappanee


by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, October 23, 2020

It's harvest time throughout Michiana.

Then again, it's always harvest time at Micro Farms LLC in Nappanee, where growing season for tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and peppers includes every day from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31.

No matter what the weather is outside, the inside of Micro Farms' futuristic, squared-off, Venlo Dutch greenhouse is as balmy as a pleasant summer evening. The facility covers just one-quarter of an acre of land, but the output of produce sustains the cash-and-carry business managed by Dion Graber.

"We have the best of all seasons in Indiana here inside, so that's what's really nice," he said.

Cucumbers and let-tuce are harvested on a daily basis and tomatoes and peppers are picked three times a week.

"With most of your outdoor stuff, some things harvest earlier in the season, but basically, you have four months of harvest, so they're all done now. We have 12, and that's what really sets us apart," Graber said. "It is really hard to grow in winter, with a lot less lighting and stuff, so your production is down, but we're still able to produce fresh produce when it's snowing outside."

Evidence of greenhouse-like structures dates back to the 1400s, but Graber's facility—known as a vertical farm—has more in common with sci-ence fiction than archeology.

Micro Farms' hundreds of plants are grown in a high-tech, aeroponic-hydroponic system, which means their roots never touch a speck of dirt.

Seeds are germinated in foam cubes and eventually moved to the main growing area where they reach up to the underside of the pitched roof. Four varieties of lettuce grow in patented plastic cups, developed by Micro Farms, that fit into wide PVC tubes.

"Nothing is sitting in water," Graber said. "Our tubes are a combination of aeroponics and hydroponics. There's a nozzle that comes down the middle of each tube and sprays out. The cups hold the cube of lettuce, and then the water just drips down through and the roots grow into the middle of the tube."

Tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are rooted in rows of large, rockwool growing medium cubes set on the floor.

"With that, you have fewer chances for diseases," Graber said.

Non-stinging bumblebees are brought in to pollinate the plants and other natural means are used to control pests. No chemical growth or pesticide inputs are used, Graber said.

Tomato vines produce optimally for six to eight months and average about 45 to 55 feet in length. Cucumber plants average about 3 inches of growth per day and plants eventually stand 18 feet tall. Pepper plants get up to 15 feet.

While water is obviously key component of a hydro-ponic operation, greenhouses typically use far less water to grow the same plant cultivated outdoors.

"We also collect rain water off of this roof and the building next door to feed our plants," Graber said. "Close to 80 percent of our water is rain water. We have about 35,000 gallons worth of storage."

The watering system, located in the basement, is tailored to the needs of each crop with nutrients Graber compared to over-the-counter, human health supple-ments.

Graber grew up on his family's nearby farm that transitioned from dairy to spe-cialty beef cattle when he was a youngster. His father, Loren, became interested in hydroponics after reading an article about the Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where they have been growing and abundance of vegetables indoors without soil or "fairy dust," according to FarmFlavor.com, since 1982.

"That really intrigued him so he kind of just stayed with it, and 25 years later he and his agronomist, Steve Kiefer, decided to go into the greenhouse business, and here we are, six years in now," Graber said. "I was working on the farm with the cows and doing custom hay, and helped build the greenhouse.

"I wasn't planning on working here, but then it just all came together and decided to give it a shot."

In addi-tion to being self-taught, Graber crammed his way through Arizona State University remote classes on growing tomatoes and peppers indoors.

As arable farmland continues to dwindle and popula-tions grow, hydroponic agriculture has long been studied as a potential solution to increased demand on the world's food supply. Hydroponic plants are generally considered three to 10 times more productive than outdoor soil-based plants. According to Neil Mattson, of Cornell University's School of Integrative Plant Science, 20 to 50 times more lettuce per acre can be produced in a green-house than in a field.

In a recent LAist.com story, Plenty farms, a San Francisco-based startup, claimed its state-of-the-art vertical system can grow 350 times more produce per square foot than a conventional farm can.

In 2006, Epcot set a world record with 32,000 tomatoes produced by a single plant over a 16-month period.

"We're looking at how to grow things indoors and what works best in this area," Graber said. "This is basically a university for growing. I've tried close to 60-some different kinds of lettuce, four different kinds of tomatoes, six differ-ent kinds of peppers and four different kinds of cucumbers just to see what works best in this envi-ronment."

Graber makes due with whatever sunshine Mother Nature will provide, while supplementing minimally with artificial light.

"You actually have a little more watt-age of sunlight in winter than you think with all the reflection," he said. "That's why everything inside of this greenhouse is powder-coated white because 1 percent more reflection cre-ates 1 percent more yield, and you've got rays bouncing all over the place in here.

"It's definitely big for us to be able to grow fresh produce all year-round."

Graber's mature produce looks uniform and flawless, and he said it com-pares favorably with similar products grown outdoors.

"We feel we're pretty close to garden-taste," he said. "Some people prefer different flavors, and our lettuce definitely sets us apart just because of how fresh it is. It's harvested less than eight hours before you get it."

Graber sells his produce on-site on Wednesday and Friday afternoons with an order-and-drive-through set-

up patterned after the one the Chick-fil-A fast-food chain has been employing during the pandemic.

"Even in the dead of winter, you never have to get out of your vehicle," Graber said. "We also supply some mom-and-pop grocery stores, a cou-ple of restaurants and a bakery."

Micro Farms is also part of a start-up, online delivery service called Local Farms Direct (localfarmsdirect.com) that is designed to deliver fresh produce and a wide variety of fresh baked goods from Amish bakers and other private bakeries to work environ-ments, such as office complexes.

"One of the best things about this job is you see new growth and progress every day with your plants, along with just being able to get your customers some healthy food throughout the year," Graber said. "We have a very loyal base of cus-tomers."

With advancements in LED lighting, hydroponic producers are able to grow produce in almost any enclosed space, including abandoned buildings, warehouses and even caves. Futurists have long envisioned the day when urban crops for big cities will be grown indoors in tall buildings occupying a real estate footprint that's a fraction of a farm field.

Indoor farming was a $23.75 billion industry in 2016 and expected to grow to $40.25 billion in 2020, according to Mar-ketsand Markets.com study.

"This is definitely just the beginning," Graber said. "I would have said, when this first was built, we were one of the most advanced facilities in Indi-ana if not the U.S. We've probably been way surpassed by now because this industry is growing very fast.

"It's food and people have to have food to live."

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