Flagstaff growers take farming vertical

11/4/2012 11:15 PM
By Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — In a small room near the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, Ron Brewster and Yosef Bender are taking steps to protect your dinner plate from natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

In a warehouse with no windows, the two men have begun to transform a barren space into a lush garden with nutrient-rich leafy greens that have names like Magenta Spreen, Deer's Tongue, Ovation and Mesclun.

Their secret to growing enough produce that would generally need a half-acre of land using traditional farming techniques in just a 300-square-foot box is simple.

The two men are growing all of their produce vertically on specially constructed walls.

Tricking nature to grow more produce is nothing new — ancient Egyptians diverted rivers to irrigate crops while sewage was used as fertilizer by the ancient Greeks.

But in a new era when consumers ask about the carbon footprint of their corn and are willing to pay more for fresh-off-the-farm organic produce, their fledgling Green Sky Farm has the potential to turn empty warehouses and strip malls into neighborhood gardens.

The pair has spent roughly $60,000 to retrofit the warehouse and buy the necessary equipment.

Currently still in the research phase, Brewster believes the business will break even when it can produce 80 pounds of vegetables and fruits per square foot annually.

Electricity is a major expense when compared to traditional farms, although the pair are trying to move away from the traditional lights and use energy-efficient lighting.

Long-term plans call for the use of solar panels, wind turbines or biodiesel generators in some remote location to further reduce their energy costs.

The story of Green Sky Farm starts five years ago, as Brewster was struck by the thought of how to better protect the food supply from catastrophic events.

Flagstaff was especially vulnerable — the city essentially has reserves of fresh produce and processed meat for only a few days in the event state highways were closed for a prolonged period of time, for example, because of a major winter storm.

His initial idea was to build a hydroponic greenhouse near Red Gap Ranch, but plans fizzled over time.

Brewster partnered with Bender, who had been growing his own food in his basement for years.

The two eventually collaborated on a vertical farming idea, growing seedlings in a nursery before mounting the plants on a wall where they would get up to 18 hours of artificial sunlight. Lights are mounted vertically on sliding racks.

Not all of the plants would be planted on the walls.

Plants bearing heavy fruits or vegetables would be planted in a more traditional fashion.

The men began delivering their produce in small amounts last week, dropping off greens to be used in salads at Pizza Furiosa.

They launched a $20,000 fundraising campaign on Kickstarter last week, looking to expand and automate some of their operations.

The company has received advice and technical support from several key organizations in town, including Northern Arizona University, Coconino Community College and the Northern Arizona Center for Entreprenuership and Technology.

The two men also plan to expand beyond just salad fixings. Green Sky Farm will someday grow lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, strawberries, blueberries and herbs year-round.

Brewster estimates the indoor, climate-controlled vertical farms will be able to harvest up to 10 crops a year.

Giving the plants up to 18 hours of artificial light and using a drip irrigation system with specially treated water is expected to halve the time it takes crops to mature, Bender estimates.

"It shortens the harvest cycle," he said.

By expanding operations, Green Sky Farm expects it will eventually be competitive with grocery stores in their prices, plus fruit and vegetables will be harvested the day they are sent to grocery stores and restaurants — they will never be deep-chilled like produce harvested in other countries or states.

He said companies choose produce that travels well or how resistant it is to pests rather than how nutritious the specific variety is.

All Green Sky Farm produce will be grown without using pesticides or chemicals.

The two men hope to expand operations by next year, bringing more crops to local markets and restaurants by next summer.

Green Sky Farm is not just a produce company, however.

The pair hopes to someday license the technology to other companies, allowing them to raise crops in vacant strip malls in Vancouver, empty warehouses in Eugene and abandoned factories in Atlanta.

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Information from: Arizona Daily Sun, http://www.azdailysun.com/


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10/25/2014 | Last Updated: 5:45 PM