In an unassuming industrial park on a flat landscape, off a service road lined with short trees and a clear view of I-94’s route through Indiana, sits a standard-looking, Grade A industrial building with a grey facade and very few windows.
While it looks just like any industrial park, anywhere in the U.S., inside of this particular one is a small wonder. Walk inside, through the unfurnished offices, and you’ll enter a vast room — 120 feet by 120 feet, 30 feet tall — full of towers of giant tubs, where everything is glowing pink. Welcome to Green Sense Farms.
“Green Sense Farms is the largest commercial indoor vertical farm in the U.S,” explains Robert Colangelo, the company’s founding farmer. “We’re also the largest user of LED grow lights. We specialize in growing fresh, nutritious leafy greens — lettuces, microgreens, herbs, and vegetables — and we distribute those locally in a five state area: Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.”
The farm shows a new type of agricultural experimentation: Taking plants out of their volatile outdoor environments and moving them inside, to a controlled situation where farmers can assure they’re growing the best produce in the most sustainable way possible, beyond the grasps of crop disease, drought, and extreme weather.
“We’ve created groundhog day in there,” Colangelo said. “Every day is the same.”
Not Your Grandmother’s Farm
There’s admittedly something a bit dystopian to the world that Green Sense Farms has built. Plants, we think, just like humans, demand natural light and fresh air to be their peak selves. The world inside of the vertical farm is the opposite: The plants there grow in relative darkness in large towers, which Colangelo describes as “a spreadsheet,” and are fed by nutrient-rich water. They don’t touch the open air until they’re carried off by trucks to area Whole Foods and other supermarkets.
Green Sense Farms, in other words, is nothing like the places that urban American consumers want to picture their food coming from. They want real food to come from open fields where men and their young sons lift hay bales and reach their hands into the dark soil. The entire environment of vertical farming is by contrast something wholly unfamiliar to the average person.
First, seeds are planted into coconut husks. “That has no nutrient value,” Colangelo explains, “but it provides an area for the roots to grow, and for moisture and nutrients to go into the root system.” Then, once the plants have germinated, they’re moved into a nursery for about 15 days. “And when you start to get the leaf canopies overlapping, we move it to the grow levels and they grow for about 15 days.”
The grow levels, which are essentially giant towers made up of tubs of plants, are a sight to behold.
“There’s 10 rows and six columns, and there’s 60 tubs per tower,” Colangelo describes. “Each tower is fed by pumped water, where the water and nutrients go in. Each tub has eight four-foot LED grow strips that are red and blue, and give a pink look to the tubs, and those shine the lights to give them the light they need for photosynthesis. The water and nutrients are pumped in, and then they gravity drain where they’re recycled and recirculated through. Each tub can hold anywhere from 120 to 1,600 plants, depending on the type and the variety.”
Green Sense Farms’ use of the LED lights — 7,000 of them, to be specific — is something particularly unique about it. Just a few months ago, lighting company Philips partnered with Green Sense to promote the LED lights, which the company estimates can help the farm “harvest 20–25 times a year by using ‘light recipes’ optimized for their produce, using 85 percent less energy.” Previously, vertical farms relied mostly on fluorescents. As LED lights become cheaper to make, they become an obvious choice over fluorescents. LEDs have three times the lifespan of a fluorescent, and convert a higher rate of the electricity they take into light, making them more efficient and better for the environment.
Vertical farming aims to create food that takes less from its environment, and gives more back. “Our mantra here is reduce, reuse, recycle,” Colangelo says of Green Sense Farms. “We conserve our resources, we recycle our water and nutrients, we don’t use any tractors and aren’t emitting any hydrocarbons or greenhouse gas as we plant and harvest.” The company also has plans to install a geothermal heat pump for its air conditioning and heating systems, and to put solar panels on its roof.
Growing interest in indoor farming could make what Green Sense is building more pervasive.
Who Should Be The Hospital Patient — You Or Your Food?
You don’t even have to wash the lettuce that comes out of a greenhouse, it’s so clean.
Dr. Dickson Despommier, an indoor farming devotee and Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, says that when it comes to growing food inside, “you have to treat crops as you treat patients in the intensive care unit at a hospital.” While on the one hand that notion rightfully causes alarm, Despommier means it as a good thing.
“A listeria outbreak two years ago in Colorado killed  people. The cantaloupes that were diseased weren’t washed first. For whatever reason they weren’t — I’d guess it was because it was a very high drought year and they didn’t have the water,” he said. “You don’t even have to wash the lettuce that comes out of a greenhouse, it’s so clean.”
Despommier hopes that indoor farming projects — of various types, but including the kind that Green Sense Farms is piloting — gain international traction to help feed the world in the safest way possible. “It’s a disturbing fact, but nonetheless true, that half the world can’t afford fertilizers and so they use human feces,” Despommier told ThinkProgress. “It’s the best way to transfer parasites from one person to the next. Of course, indoor farming wouldn’t allow that to happen. E. coli 0157, which is from animal sources, is another big threat. That’s from cow manure. Cow manure is a favorite for fertilizers. And if you’re spraying that on your plants, it’s very hard to get rid of. So it just makes sense to try to avoid these things before you’ve got them.”
While our methods of farming are making the food it yields less safe to eat, crops are also headed toward destruction. As climate change disrupts existing weather patterns, plants become susceptible to new diseases, or conditions become more favorable to bacteria. Costa Rica, for example, is in the middle of a vast agricultural crisis, as warming weather and increasing rains have made the climate hospitable to scale insects and mealybugs. The insects have damaged the country’s banana crops to the point where they will not be accepted by exporters. At the same time, across the globe in places like Mozambique and Jordan, bananas are also being threatened by the fungus known as Panama disease.
While bananas are a nutrition staple in developing countries, major cash crops in economic leaders are also becoming susceptible to volatile outdoor weather conditions. Last year in the United Kingdom, for example, wheat production dropped as much as 30 percent thanks to record-breaking wet and cold. By 2100, experts predict that production of corn, soy, and cotton crops in the United States could drop off by 80 percent.
Still, we’re finding ourselves with more mouths to feed. The world’s population has doubled in the last 45 years and is set to double again in the next 50. Experts continue to urge for new solutions to find a crop yield that can keep up with the growing demand.
One country, Japan, has felt this strain more acutely than most. Already a populous island nation, the massive tsunami in 2011 triggered a series of terrifying events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in the northern part of the country, miles of irradiated farmland needed to but shut down. Thanks to the incident, residents also became increasingly wary of plants yielded from the soil.
Indoor farming was already popular in Japan prior to the Fukushima disaster but paired with the new-found distrust of the soil, it really took hold.
Despommier talks with fascination about the indoor farming experiments taking place in Japan. The projects, which are mainly called ‘plant factories,’ sound fantastical: There’s one greenhouse attached to a grocery store, where you can go pick your tomatoes before weighing and purchasing them. There’s Pasona O2, a 10,000 square foot vertical farm built underground in a former bank vault in Tokyo, where chefs go to train. The Fairy Angel plant factory in the basement of a restaurant in Kyoto boasts of having zero food miles. The Sembikiya fruit emporium sells designer fruits, including cantaloupes that wear hats in their greenhouses so they don’t get blemished. All told, the country has more than 150 hydroponic growing operations, and gets about a third of its food from urban agriculture.
Despommier pictures a future where, across the globe, seed banks and vertical farms live symbiotically on the edge of cities, where demand is high but production remains cheap.
“The closer you can get a building such as that to dense populations, the better. That’s why I think vertical farming will replace whatever greenhouse is now in existence,” he says. “If cities could produce 10 percent of what they consume indoors, within city limits, instead of in the soil, then an astounding amount of land — a rough calculation is about 340,000 sq. miles of hardwood forest — could be regenerated. That’s equivalent to about half of the amount of Brazilian rain forest that have been deforested in favor of farming. 10 percent is a pretty high goal — but it’s an achievable goal.”
Still, some remain skeptical that indoor farming can have much of an impact on the environmental problems the world faces today. Danielle Nierenberg, President of Food Tank, which calls itself “The Food Think Tank,” is one of these skeptics. She says that the conversation about how to make agriculture more environmentally conscious needs to be broader-reaching than indoor farms can be.
“The issue for us is that we try to look at agriculture as a part of the food system, and that requires thinking about agriculture in terms of landscapes, so it’s not about producing foods, it’s about contributing to soil health and water supplies and biodiversity,” she said. “Vertical farming can’t do that. It’s not going to be thought of in terms of what it gives to the landscape itself.”
Monoculture — the practice of harvesting massive amounts of land for one specific crop, like soy — has depleted the soil of vital nutrients. And industrial agriculture is to blame for problems with water pollution, via herbicide or general changes to water runoff. Indoor farming may remove some fertilizer, but it doesn’t restore the land, Nierenberg argues.
“I don’t think we can just move everything inside and say that’s the way we’re dealing with climate change, because that’s not going to work,” she went on. “We need to look at making agriculture more resilient outdoors. Farmers who are experiencing drought are thinking long term, should I be growing these water-intensive farms five or 10 years from now. Thinking about helping these systems adapt is going to be a better solution than moving farming indoors. There are a lot of resources to bring farming indoors. It’s not going to be the solution. It might be part of the solution, but I don’t see it as viable over the long term in solving the crisis in food production.”
The truth is that the average consumer’s romantic idea of farming is mostly imagined. A handful of agribusinesses own huge swaths of American farming, fertilization, and seed production. In the age of demand for the artisanal, the hand-crafted, and the local, vertical farming may be a more reassuring way to achieve the kinds of foods that trendy urban consumers are demanding.
Green Sense Farms doesn’t use pesticides. Instead, by using sealed doors at its entrances, it keeps itself tightly closed off from the kinds of pests that can ruin pesticide-free crops outdoors. And when it comes to being “local,” vertical farms’ produce actually has an advantage. Colangelo’s farm, for example, is right near several major highways, 50 miles outside of Chicago, where trucks can stop by and pick up the food quickly and easily before bringing it to major urban areas. That may not sound appetizing, but it means that products are fresh. And, because of the nature of an indoor farm, farmers can maximize freshness, planting and harvesting on schedule for when they know large orders are coming.
“Depending on when we feed, we can have a tower come due daily, every other day, so we’re always planting, transplanting, and harvesting,” Colangelo explains.
Colangelo believes the future of farming is replicating this model on an even more local scale, which he deems “farm to institution.” “It’s putting these farms where large volumes of meals are being produced — universities, military bases, hospitals — so that you’re getting the food closer to the consumer,” he said. “It’s fresher, it ends up being less expensive, it’s not traveling as many food miles.”
Reducing ‘food miles’ helps with more than the public perception of being local. It’s another way in which vertical farms can actually be more sustainable than traditional ones. The idea is simple: The fewer miles your food has to travel, the less carbon you’re putting into the atmosphere.
Now, new ideas are now popping up to bring indoor farming even closer to home. One group of MIT students, for example, has secured $2 million in seed funding for Grove Labs, a company that will make refrigerator-sized indoor farms meant to go in residential homes. It uses a fish tank as fertilizer for the plants, which reap nitrogen from fish runoff, and then the water is filtered back up to the fish. The machine will be able to grow lettuces and tomatoes right in someone’s kitchen. A smaller version of the same idea — Aqualibrium — sells fish tanks with herb gardens on top that bring hydroponics (or, ‘aquaponics’ when fish are involved) into people’s homes.
Increasing urbanization is forcing people to think more critically about how to supply nutritious food to city dwellers. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has pointed out that, while urbanization is leading to a wider variety of foods in cities, “the food consumed in urban areas is not necessarily of superior nutritional quality and food safety is a growing concern in many urban environments.” On top of that, food options for the urban poor tend to be among the worst quality, with nutritious options being least available.
The UN’s World Meteorological Organization has pushed for innovation in indoor farming techniques to combat the nourishment problems of large cities, specifically in large Asian metropolises. “WMO recommends countries invest more in urban and indoor agriculture that can assist greatly in providing food for the hundreds of millions of people living in the growing cities of Asia,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said in a 2008 report on urbanization, nutrition, and climate change. His recommendation was that cities “invest more in urban and indoor agriculture that can assist greatly in providing food for the hundreds of millions of people living in Asian cities whose populations are surging.”
But whether or not farmers look at it as a nutrition problem or simply better business, indoor farming may wind up being the last best option, as one Panamanian farmer detailed to the group Agritecture.
“Prior to 2008 Panama had two seasons: one wet and one dry. You could set a watch by the change of seasons,” the farmer said. “In late November, the last of the rains would draw to a stop. It would then be dry until late April or early May. It has worsened every year since. This year the rains lasted into January.”