LED lighting could result in more indoor farms cropping up
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.