Aug 15, 2013
Indoor vertical grower touts concept’s benefits

Emerging concepts that enable food producers to thrive in more sustainable ways continue to take shape.

One of those approaches is known as vertical farming, and the operators of an indoor system being fine-tuned in a 40,000-square-foot former plastics factory in southern Michigan aim to take advantage of all that new technologies have to offer.

The business’ primary organic crops are leafy greens, including five different types of lettuces, spinach, kale and basil. Several tomato varieties also are becoming a focus, and there has been talk of ramping up more carrots, peppers, cucumbers, herbs and berries, and even trying an asparagus crop.

“We’ve developed something that is very sustainable, provides a lot of innovations in indoor agriculture and enhances supply chain innovation,” said Milan Kluko, an engineer who kick-started Green Spirit Farms in the former Plastics Masters factory on U.S. 12 in New Buffalo, Mich.

“Leafy greens are what everybody likes,” Kluko said. “Stores tells us what they want and we can do it for them.”

The company has expanded its growing operations in Georgia and the United Kingdom with “demonstration” farms with small projects to “test various crops and provide prospective customers and consumers samples of what larger scale vertical farming can do,” said Kluko, who is scouting other locations in the Midwest and East Coast.

Kluko, president of Green Spirit Farms and Fountainhead Engineering, founded Green Sprit in 2011 to commercialize more sustainable and low-cost farming systems that produce year round, including vertical farming in repurposed or vacant buildings. He believes the vertical garden system can produce much greater revenue and yield numbers than any other approach being used in agriculture.

The technique provides several harvests per year of organic vegetables grown “extremely local.” The products, including those coming from 10 to 12 harvests of leafy greens, are marketed within 15 to 50 miles of the facility, often getting to restaurants, supermarkets and other outlets within the same day of harvesting. Customers often come from the nearby Chicago area to pick up produce.

According to Kluko, the concept is designed to “significantly reduce transportation and supply chain management costs and offset large quantities of carbon by locating the farm near markets where people consume the food, versus in remote growing locations. We know this is the right approach at the right time.”

The company’s initiatives, spurred on by the motto “quicker, better, faster,” were featured during the 2012 Olympics in London, and have led to inroads for the enterprise in the United Kingdom. Kluko said the concept was endorsed by John Gummer, Lord Deben, president of Globe International and a former agriculture minister for the U.K., who called it “a very sustainable way to grow – the future of farming that provides food sovereignty.”

“I started out by evaluating other indoor growing systems with a focus on vertical farming,” Kluko related. “I was doing that as part of a nationwide evaluation of urban and vertical farming systems looking at sustainability. There is not a lot of verticality being done out there, and where there is the other systems are smallish and not commercially based. What we do doesn’t even compare to a greenhouse. We grow in the dark and it’s not hydroponics.”

“We looked at how can we design a system that allowed for maximum plant density and minimum energy and water use – all focused on sustainability.”

The operation uses rotating cylinders that circulate plants around an energy-efficient light source, using 90 percent less water than traditional and hydroponic agriculture and taking up a fraction of the space. The business has had only a handful of employees in its first year and a half of operation, including Kluko’s son Dan and his wife Vida.

It’s a year round, indoor endeavor that is not exposed to unpredictable weather. The pest issue is null and void and no pesticides or herbicides are employed in the process.

Green Sprit is using planting device cylinders sold by Omega Garden Inc. of Qualicum Beach, British Columbia. Volksgarden is a rotating cylinder 4 feet in diameter and 2 feet long. Plants grow in a circle around the inside of the cylinder. As the device slowly rotates, the plant’s roots dip into a tray holding a liquid solution that provides water and nutrients. A light runs horizontally through the cylinder to nourish the crops. Portions of the Green Spirit Facility are filled with Volksgarden units stacked three levels high.

A major selling point of the concept is the ability to grow and market produce locally year round, reducing shipping and transportation expenses and mitigating pollution from moving produce in trucks for long distances.

Unlike greenhouses that require supplemental light often provided by high-wattage bulbs, Green Spirit uses low-energy induction lamps that use an electro-magnet to spark argon gas as their light source, instead of a filament. The lights can last up to 100,000 hours, twice as long as LED lights.

Kluko said the light burns at a lower temperature – down to 130˚ F – than those typically hundreds of degrees warmer used in hydroponics, enabling the source to be closer to the plant. That is one of the factors for much higher and more consistent yields than traditional leafy greens crops, he said.

“And emulating sunrise and sunset is hugely beneficial for the plants,” he pointed out.

“We’ve determined what grows best in a rotary garden and added verticality to it,” noted Kluko, who said the system’s pallet racking allows for as many as six gardens stacked 18 feet high.

Each cylinder holds 80 plants, and six cylinders are stacked together about 20 feet high at each station. The configuration allows for 480 plants growing in a small space that would require 1,000 acres of traditional farmland. Kluko indicated the operation is adding about 5,000 plants each week, moving toward the equivalent of 100 acres of farmland in about 7,000 square feet of space.

“Typically we have a 15 to 25 plant ratio per square foot versus one plant (or less) per foot outside,” Kluko indicated. “Due to the vertical nature of how we grow there are no planting beds, or rows between plants (for tractors or access) and no thinning of plants after planting – we plant one seed per plant.”

Vertical Growing Stations (VGS) that hold 1,032 plants per 36 foot grow area would require more than 12,000 feet of outside planting area, Kluko said.

“With nine harvests per year the yield is very great obviously when compared to one or two harvests per year outside.”

Virtually all of Green Spirit’s water use is recycled, and alternative energy sources include solar and wind applications.

The vertical growing concept is gaining more acceptance in traditional agriculture circles. Kluko’s had contact with the Extension services at Purdue University and the University of Illinois to share “what we’re doing and how we’re coming up with the ideas.”

“Traditionally, when I’ve spoken at some agriculture events, I was the last guy on the docket – and that’s changing,” he said. “Soil farmers are believers once they taste (Green Spirit’s vegetables). Until then, they have some reservations.”

Private investment sources, which didn’t want to have anything to do with Kluko 18 months ago, “are calling for us now. Banks understand it. We’ve raised a significant amount of equity from non-agriculture sources. The biggest single risk is weather in growing outdoors. You have one, maybe two times a year to make it happen. If you take away the business risk, people will invest.”

Kluko maintains retail price points for Green Spirit’s selections are on par with traditional produce.

“There is no green premium for us. When you see us in the stores were at about the same price – not a dollar higher.”

Green Spirit isn’t designed to compete with local farmers during the peak season of their primary crops.

“We won’t grow a lot of tomatoes and flowering vegetables in the summer because we want local farmers to get that revenue,” Kluko said. “We’re part of the agricultural system and we’re part of the backstop in the wintertime. We’ve converted to leafy greens in an area where there’s not a lot of local lettuce and spinach being grown. We’re growing stuff that normally comes from New Jersey or southern Illinois.”

“We’re all about the food miles,” Kluko stressed. “We want to be more of a player to create food sovereignty.”

Gary Pullano

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