Lakewood hydroponic farm looks to the future of farming
June 7, 2017
Farm to school
For the crops grown at Infinite Harvest, there’s a push to make them more available for those who might want them or simply those who haven’t heard of microgreens before.
Microgreens are mainly seen at fine dining restaurants, but like we saw with kale, it’s becoming more popular, even at the school level. Infinite Harvest is working with Natalie Leffler, who works with Greeley-Evans School District 6’s Farm to School program to get some of their products into schools.
In the early 2000s, Tommy Romano started to grow plants in his basement. He wanted to experiment with ways to efficiently grow food inside through vertical farming rather than the traditional way.
He experimented with different vegetables, such as corn. He would grow them indoors and stacked crops atop of other crops. For vertical farming, the point is to use less horizontal space, which can allow for farming in the middle of urban areas.
It took a lot of trial and error to find a way to efficiently farm indoors, but Romano was used to the scientific process, as he has a master's in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. He studied his process as a way to grow crops in space before realizing they would work on Earth, too. Once he felt his techniques were ready, he started Infinite Harvest, which opened January 2015 in Lakewood.
The farm grows 13 microgreens and lettuce. Microgreens are young vegetables greens. They're harvested before baby greens but later than sprouts. They can come from corn, celery, arugula and other vegetables and greens. They're not always the easiest to find, but microgreens might be an option for schools in Colorado soon. Romano is working with Natalie Leffler, head of Greeley-Evans School District 6's Farm to Schools program, to possibly start supplying schools with Infinite Harvest crops.
Microgreens are ideal for Infinite Harvest because the plants don't need to grow very high before they're harvested, which means more rows can be used. The way those at Infinite Harvest put it, the ceiling is the limit.
But that ceiling comes in handy, too. This past month, when Colorado was hit with rain, hail and snow, the microgreens and lettuce weren't touched by the elements.
That's the benefit of an indoor hydroponic vertical farm — the weather is controlled by technology.
"We don't actively manage a lot," said Nathan Lorne, operations manager. "We really rely on her."
The "her" in this scenario isn't a human, but the greenhouse control system. The system, run by software, controls how much water and nutrients the plants get, the temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels — anything that will affect the plants. The system is contained in a box filled with machines and wires that take notes on absolutely everything that happens in the greenhouse. In case something goes wrong, the control system will send a message to someone to come fix it.
Lorne said one of the benefits of having an indoor farm is the complete control over what the plants are exposed to. Even with the lighting the farm uses. They want to save as much energy as they can, so they use only blue and red spectrum lights — those are what the plants need for photosynthesis.
The farm pays about six times less than marijuana greenhouses pay in electricity costs each month. Pot is a good comparison because it is also grown in greenhouses.
Even more important for them, though, is what the plants aren't exposed to.
Before even going into the farm, you enter an air cleanser room. Air is circulating and it's where visitors put on hair nets, hats, shoe covers or the specific farm shoes. This helps prevent some unwanted outside elements from getting in. There are traps that attract bugs to keep them from going in, too.
Because there aren't bugs or anything else in the farm aside from what is planned, Infinite Harvest doesn't use genetically modified plants, and there isn't a need for pesticides, either.
Even organic farms will use some sort of organic pesticide or spray to get rid of weeds or pests. Infinite Harvest doesn't have to.
Even with the organic trend, Romano said there aren't plans to apply to be organically certified. On one hand, the "Colorado Proud" label means more.
And on the other hand, "We're beyond organic," Romano said.
KEEP MOVING FORWARD
Romano made clear the purpose of this farm isn't to outdo farming. It's an ongoing science experiment in some ways. This isn't something that has been done before, and some of the technologies are relatively expensive.
There are a number of worries and problems farmers face, and Infinite Harvest looks to find solutions for them, Lorne said.
"Everyone here loves the romance of traditional farming," he said.
With the use of technology and indoor operations, Infinite Harvest has only 18 employees for their operation. They're not harvesting mass amounts of food at a time, but they're able to harvest food year-round.
But one of the most important roles is one most farms don't really need: a software engineer.
Romano said they're looking to expand, but they don't want it to be a big leap from what they're doing now. They want to take lessons learned and improve upon them a little at a time.
"There is no textbook," Lorne said.
And that's why Romano doesn't see Infinite Harvest as a competing entity, but as the next forward step in the industry.
"The traditional ways aren't fulfilling (the holes left by problems)," Romano said. "If we held to the same traditions of farming. … We'd still be riding horses right now. We're helping it take the next step."
Samantha Fox is a reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (970) 392-4410 or on Twitter @FoxonaFarm.