Growth in indoor farming business boosted by COVID-19, sustainability focus



Hydroponic and other indoor-farm produce businesses are growing in multiple ways in various parts of the Miami Valley and across the country as consumers look for alternatives to vegetables trucked in from California and Arizona.

The area’s varied examples range from a BrightFarms greenhouse across from the Wilmington Air Park in Clinton County to 80 Acres Farm, reusing a building in downtown Hamilton in Butler County, to Davidson Family Growers, a century-old traditional family farm also growing with hydroponics in New Carlisle, Clark County.

“We don’t have one just yet,” said Felix Fernando, past co-chair of Montgomery County Food Equity Coalition.

“This is definitely a growing area,” added Fernando, Assistant Professor of Sustainability and Coordinator of Graduate Certificate in Sustainability at the University of Dayton (UD).

Increasingly, consumers and investors are drawn to the principles of sustainability, prompting businesses and educational institutions to respond with programs and products.

For a variety of reasons, hydroponics fit perfectly in markets, such as southern Ohio, otherwise dependent on trucked-in products. In the process climate change is to be slowed.

“It reduces our dependency on areas further away,” Fernando said. “These areas are seeing or are expected to see impacts from climate change,” such as flooding, erosion, drought, crop disease.

Hydroponics, grown indoors, can put fresh vegetables on store shelves and kitchen tables in areas, such as Dayton, where supermarkets don’t exist or stores offer this option to trucked-in produce.

“There is definitely a need,” Fernando said.

Hydroponic crops are less demanding of natural resources such as water and soil and grown without pesticides.

Opponents point to the lack of soil use in challenging organic claims and infrastructure costs of the vertical farming facilities. The vast majority of produce is still grown traditionally.

Still the global indoor farming technology market accounted for nearly $6.5 billion in 2017 and is projected to reach nearly $15.3 billion by 2024, according to a 2018 Zion Market Research report.

Supporters of hydroponic produce also point to the difference in freshness of overnight deliveries as opposed to produce trucked for days across the country.

Rather than relying on distant sources and complex supply chains, hydroponic fruits and vegetables raised regionally allow producers, stores and customers to "try to build a local relationship,” Fernando said. “The supply chain is shorter either way.”

Fernando pointed to Plant Chicago, a group of businesses in a former meat-packing plant in Chicago, where vegetables are grown and a microbrewery provides spent materials for a bio-gas generator used for the growing and a bakery, in what is known as "closed-loop production”

“It’s a new avenue for job creation,” he said. “It absolutely makes sense.”

Miami Valley sustainable, indoor-farming endeavors

In addition to BrightFarms, TAC Industries in Springfield has added a hydroponic greenhouse to produce lettuce for a restaurant it operates.

Also in Clark County, Davidson Family Growers in New Carlisle is doing traditional farming as well as hydroponic farming.

For the Davidsons, traditional farming began in 1886. Kevin Davidson got into hydroponics in 2015.

In March, when COVID-19 concerns prompted business closings and job losses: “That was a big problem. I lost 90% of my business in three days,” Davidson said in a phone interview last week.

Restaurants and customers, including UD, shut down on the same weekend, he recalled.

Davidson, who has an engineering degree from UD, said hydroponic business demand, originally at area farmers markets, has picked back up since he began concentrating on selling through on-line farmers markets.

“It’s different,” he said, estimating revenues were back to where they had been, although more labor was required to ready his produce to be dropped off at distribution Wagon hubs in Columbus and Cincinnati, where it is redistributed to buyers' doorsteps.

Davidson sells lettuce, kale and cabbage products raised through hydroponics. In contrast, corn and soy beans are still grown and sold the old-fashioned way, what he summarized as a “whole different ball game.”

Asked which method he preferred, Davidson said, "I don’t have any desire to grow produce out in the ground conventionally.”

He said hydroponics were cleaner and easier and could be used to grow year-round.

With the “right nutrients,” Davison said, the produce should be “as health or healthier.”

“They are two completely different aspects of the business,” he concluded.

In Hamilton, Butler County, 80 Acres Farms operates two locations, including one in a formerly dilapidated historic building at 319 South 2nd Street in the city’s downtown.

The business also operates from a Cincinnati location. At an automated facility on Enterprise Drive in Hamilton, leafy vegetables, herbs and strawberries are raised. The former Miami Motor Car Co. building in downtown Hamilton is used to raise vine crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

1 million pounds of green grown each year in 2-acre sustainable greenhouse

BrightFarms, which operates four farms around the country, has seen demand jump 40 percent between Aug. 2019-Aug. 2020, according to BrightFarms CEO Steve Platt.

The Ohio operation is looking for workers in part in response to a 20-percent jump in demand, driven in part by stores looking for alternatives for produce customers left wanting when traditional supplies from the West Coast dwindled in the midst of the new coronavirus pandemic, Platt said.

Independent retailers' orders jumped 71%, WalMart by 23%, since March, according to BrightFarms.

“Now with the pandemic, people are eating more at home. They are looking for local projects,” Platt said in a phone interview.

Investors including Cox Enterprises, owners of this newspaper, have bought into companies including BrightFarms “taking unique approaches to healing and protecting our planet from the negative aspects of climate change,” according to an article in a Cox employee publication.

Rather than soil, BrightFarms products and others grown with hydroponics are nurtured with mineral nutrient solutions.

BrightFarms lettuce, spinach and basil is available in Fresh Thyme, Meijer and Sam’s Club stores in the region, along with about 100 independent retailers, not currently including Dorothy Lane Market or Kroger. So far, BrightFarms has not sold any private-label produce to retailers, choosing instead to exclusively market their brand, said Brian Stephens, the plant manager and Springboro resident.

Six days a week, seeds are planted along with peat moss and vermiculite in furrowed Styrofoam boards, roughly 1,000 a day. Plantings reflect orders over the next three weeks.

After germinating, the boards are set atop one of nine 110,000-gallon ponds in a two-acre indoor growing area.

“Surprisingly they don’t use a lot of water,” Stephens said during a tour of the Wilmington facilities.

The maturing plants, floating on the board in the pools, are transplanted east in a grid stretching toward the harvesting end. After 15-21 days, the plants are sheered of stems and roots, and shipped, usually the same night, according to Stephens. The discarded parts are given to area farmers and used to feed livestock.

The growing area is heated, while cool air is pulled across the plants through automated systems. Shades control the amount of natural sunlight shined through a clear glass roof, explained Stephens, who moved to Warren County in 2018 to oversee the new plant.

Microscopic “beneficial” bugs, rather than pesticides, keep off any pests. About 2,000 pounds of leafy greens a day are shipped.

Founded in 2011, BrightFarms now operates farms in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio. A fifth is under construction in North Carolina, using lessons learned at existing locations. Each serves a market within a days' drive of 26-foot trucks in the company’s fleet.

BrightFarms is looking to add five to10 employees to the 32 now planting, harvesting and trucking the products from Wilmington.

The $10 million facilities sit on three of 10 acres, leaving room for expansion. The company is looking at doubling in size.

“We’re very much about the future. It’s a sustainable business,” Platt said.

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