Farm inputs like fertilizers, fuel, and pesticides are expensive, and excessive use of them isn’t good for the planet, so when food goes to waste, a lot gets lost. This is what we learned last time out.
Conversely, I may have encountered the most efficient growing operation ever. It’s called FarmedHere, and it is an indoor, vertical farm that uses the aquaponic and aeroponic methods to grow basil and arugula in Bedford Park, Ill.
Readers may be familiar with the hydroponic method of growing, where nutrients are delivered to the roots of the plants without using soil, but these similar methods may be new to people. I asked CEO Jolanta Hardej to help me describe exactly how she gets the plants to grow.
“We use stackable growing beds, maybe 2, 3, 4, or 5 levels. Right now one is operating, the second almost ready, and the third one is under construction.” She expects to expand to 20 stacks in time. This is the first type of efficiency, space. They are the first vertical grower to be certified organic.
“The plants are grown with the support of nutrients from fish,” Jolanta continued, describing the aquaponic method. The water the fish live in is pumped through clarifiers and onto the growing bed, and the plant roots filter out the fish waste and use it to sustain themselves. The water is returned to the fish, so very little is lost over time, and the fish continue to make more fertilizer. When the fish are of sufficient size, they’ll be harvested, too.
However, the aeroponic method is even more water efficient. The same solution of fish waste and water is sprayed in low quantities on the roots, and only 2% of that water is needed. As in hydroponics, no soil is used in either method. Water delivers the nutrients to the plants.
All this takes place in a warehouse, under lights. The lights stay on, so growing happens 24/7. Weeds, diseases, and detrimental critters never enter the warehouse, so losses typical of their damage never happen. Distribution is done in house, which virtually eliminates shrinkage there, and retailers don’t really experience shrink, either, because the products don’t travel far, so they’re fresh. They distribute only to the Chicago area.
Since I toured the aquaponic operation at Gabriel’s Place, I wanted to know how Jolanta had scaled it to a commercial operation. “The growing beds are custom-made,” she said, so it scales itself. She then talked about the company’s growth.
“We started two years ago with about 4,000 square feet.” (The Bedford Park facility is 90,000.) “When we put our products in Whole Foods, demand went way up, and we needed a larger facility.” So, with the help of angel investors, and the kind cooperation of Bedford Park officials, they began constructing growing stacks in the current location.
In addition to growing the size of the operation, they hope to offer a greater variety of herbs and microgreens in the future.