LED light­ing could re­sult in more in­door farms crop­ping up

The Columbus Dispatch - - Front Page -

Mike Zelkind stands at one end of what was once a ship­ping con­tainer and opens the door to the fu­ture.

Thou­sands of young col­lard greens are grow­ing vig­or­ously un­der a glow of pink-pur­ple lamps in a scene that seems to have come from a sci-fi movie, or at least a NASA ex­per­i­ment. But Zelkind is at the helm of an earth­bound en­ter­prise. He is chief ex­ec­u­tive of 80 Acres Farms, with a plant fac­tory in an up­town Cincin­nati neigh­bor­hood where ware­houses sit cheek by jowl with de­tached houses.

Since plants emerged on Earth, they have re­lied on the light of the sun to feed and grow through the process of pho­to­syn­the­sis.

But Zelkind is part of a radical shift in agri­cul­ture — decades in the mak­ing — in which plants can be grown com­mer­cially with­out a sin­gle sun­beam. A num­ber of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances have made this pos­si­ble, but none more so than in­no­va­tions in LED light­ing.

Diode lights, which work by pass­ing a cur­rent be­tween semi­con­duc­tors, have come a long way since they showed up in cal­cu­la­tor dis­plays in the 1970s. Com­pared with other forms of elec­tri­cal il­lu­mi­na­tion, light-emit­ting diodes use less en­ergy, give off lit­tle heat and can be ma­nip­u­lated to op­ti­mize plant growth.

In agri­cul­tural ap­pli­ca­tions, LED lights are used in ways that seem to bor­der on alchemy, chang­ing how plants grow, when they flower, how they taste and even their lev­els of vi­ta­mins and an­tiox­i­dants. The lights can also pro­long their shelf life.

“Peo­ple haven’t be­gun to think about the real im­pact of what we are do­ing,” said Zelkind, who is us­ing light recipes to grow, for ex­am­ple, two types of basil from the same plant: sweeter ones for the gro­cery store and more piquant ver­sions for chefs.

For Zelkind, a for­mer food com­pany ex­ec­u­tive, his in­door farm and its leadingedge light­ing change not just the way plants are grown but also the en­tire con­vo­luted sys­tem of food pro­duc­tion, pric­ing and Grower Julie Flick­ner in­spects kale at 80 Acres Farm in Cincin­nati.

dis­tri­bu­tion in the United States.

High-tech plant fac­to­ries are sprout­ing across the U.S. and around the world. En­trepreneurs are drawn to the idea of dis­rupt­ing the sta­tus quo, con­fronting cli­mate change and play­ing with a suite of high-tech sys­tems. In­door farm­ing, in sum, is cool.

It has its crit­ics, how­ever, who see it as an agri­cul­tural sideshow un­likely to ful­fill prom­ises of feed­ing a grow­ing ur­ban­ized pop­u­la­tion.

Zelkind agrees that some of the ex­pec­ta­tions are un­re­al­is­tic, but he of­fers an en­er­getic pitch: He says his stacked shelves of crops are fresh, raised with­out pes­ti­cides and con­sumed lo­cally within a day or two of har­vest. They re­quire a frac­tion of the land, water and fer­til­iz­ers of greens raised in con­ven­tional agri­cul­ture. He doesn’t need va­ri­eties bred for dis­ease re­sis­tance over fla­vor or plants ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied to han­dle the stresses of the field. And his har­vest isn’t shipped across the coun­try in re­frig­er­ated trucks from farms vul­ner­a­ble to the ef­fects of cli­mate change.

“We think cli­mate change is mak­ing it much more dif­fi­cult for a lot of farms around the coun­try, around the world,” he said, speak­ing from his of­fice over­look­ing a demon­stra­tion kitchen for vis­it­ing chefs and oth­ers.

In ad­di­tion to shap­ing the plants, LEDs al­low speedy, year-round crop cy­cles. This per­mits Zelkind and his team of grow­ers and tech­ni­cians to pro­duce 200,000 pounds of leafy greens, vine crops, herbs

and mi­cro­greens an­nu­ally in a 12,000-square-foot ware­house, an amount that would re­quire 80 acres of farm­land (hence the com­pany’s name).

Zelkind and his busi­ness part­ner, 80 Acres Pres­i­dent Tisha Liv­ingston, ac­quired the aban­doned ware­house, added two ship­ping con­tain­ers and con­verted the in­te­rior into sev­eral grow­ing zones with so­phis­ti­cated en­vi­ron­men­tal sys­tems that con­stantly mon­i­tor and reg­u­late tem­per­a­ture, hu­mid­ity, air flow, car­bon diox­ide lev­els and crop health. Grown hy­dro­pon­i­cally, the plant roots are bathed in nu­tri­ent-rich water. The mois­ture and un­used nu­tri­ents ex­haled by the plants are re­cy­cled.

But it is the LED light­ing that has changed the game. Con­ven­tional green­houses have re­lied on high-pres­sure sodium lamps to sup­ple­ment sun­light, but HPS lights can be ill-suited to so­lar­free farms be­cause they con­sume far more power to pro­duce the same light lev­els. They also throw off too much heat to place near young greens or an­other fa­vored fac­tory farm crop, mi­cro­greens. Green­houses, still the bulk of enclosed en­vi­ron­ment agri­cul­ture, are mov­ing to a com­bi­na­tion of HPS and LED light­ing for sup­ple­men­tal light­ing, though an­a­lysts see a time when they are lit by LEDs alone.

Liv­ingston likens LEDraised food to the ad­vent of smart­phones. “Five years from now, ev­ery­one is go­ing to be liv­ing with in­door farm­ing and won­der how we did with­out it,” she said.


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