Massive indoor farming takes root

2013-03-29T00:00:00Z Massive indoor farming takes rootThe Associated Press The Associated Press
March 29, 2013 12:00 am  • 

BEDFORD PARK, Ill. - Farming in abandoned warehouses has become a hot trend in the Midwest - with varying degrees of success - as more entrepreneurs worldwide experiment with indoor growing systems in attempts to grow more food locally.

Now one facility, FarmedHere LLC in suburban Chicago, is attempting to take indoor warehouse farming to the "megafarm" level, in a region known more for its massive hog, corn and soybean farms than for crops of boutique greens.

Here's a rundown on the trend:

WHAT ARE THESE FARMS LIKE?

In Chicago, Milwaukee and other urban areas, entrepreneurs have taken up residence in vacant buildings that have high ceilings and plenty of space. Often, these are called "vertical" farms because, within the buildings, farmers build tall structures with several levels of growing beds, often lined with artificial lights.

With so much vacant space available, the cost of the property is often cheap to buy or rent, though the power needed to run these facilities often is not.

Elsewhere, growers are incorporating greenhouses and natural light into their models.

Though farmers are experimenting with all kinds of crops, most have had success growing greens - herbs, various types of lettuce and "microgreens," edible plants such as beets and sunflowers that are harvested when they are young and used like sprouts in salads and sandwiches.

"Aquaponic" farms use water circulated to the plants that is fertilized with fish excrement. Often, these farms also sell the fish to grocers or restaurants.

HOW IS FARMEDHERE DIFFERENT?

"It's different here than I've seen anywhere else, just the size, the sheer scale of it is very unique," says Maximino Gonzalez, master grower at FarmedHere LLC.

The company, based in Bedford Park, Ill., is finishing the first of four phases, with plans to expand by the end of next year to 150,000 square feet. The farm supplies local grocery with fresh basil, arugula and other greens.

Right now, the farm has two large structures with five to six levels of massive growing beds lit with fluorescent lighting.

WHAT'S THE ROUTINE LIKE?

Workers plant the seeds and grow seedlings on racks, then transfer into the growing systems.

After about a month, the crops - certified as "organic" by the USDA - are harvested and packaged by about a dozen workers in a cooling room. Early the morning after the harvests, workers use two vans to deliver those greens - mainly basil and arugula right now - to grocers in Chicago and suburbs.

CEO Jolanta Hardej calls it "on-demand farming."

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES?

The biggest stumbling block for facilities like these remains the electricity to run the lights that help the plants grow. Heating these spaces also can be costly.

A few other indoor farms in Wisconsin and Chicago have gone out of business or are struggling.

Some growers are experimenting with solar, wind and methane as ways to generate the power.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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