After writing on the future of vertical farming, and opining that Buffalo should be looking in similar direction, I was approached by two different vertical farming operations in Buffalo, one of which I have already paid a visit to.
In an email, Buffalo vertical farmer Jeremy Witt (photo right) said,”We are 12 days into our first growing cycle of romaine lettuce and we hope to harvest our first 250 heads around May 10th or so.”
That’s all I needed to arrange a meeting, even though I was still unsure of the full scale of the operation, where it was being housed, and the future intentions of the entrepreneur and his business partner Matt Latham.
It turns out that Jeremy and Matt have built a vertical farm in the smallish garage of a residential home in North Buffalo. The growing operation is well underway, and is in the midst of yielding its first bounty. Once I wrapped my mind around what I was looking at, the questions began to flow, like water through an aquaponics system.
But first a little back story. Jeremy and Matt both married Buffalo girls after dating them for eight years. Jeremy is from Buffalo, and Matt hails from Providence, RI. Over the course of the eight years of dating, the to-be-brother-in-laws became close, and shared a bunch of business ideas. After Matt finally moved to Buffalo, the two settled on a business idea that they both agreed would work. After the wives gave their blessings, the partners embarked upon a journey that is considered the next significant frontier in farming.
In order to get the operation off the ground (literally), Jeremy and Matt took over Jeremy’s garage (so long car), and began to research and experiment with plumbing 101 and the art of aquaponics. It turns out that the plumbing part of the business is not as easy as it might seem, but thankfully there were people in Buffalo who did lend their expertise, mainly the crew from Buffalo Roots & Hydroponics on Main Street.
Once the stacked beds were in place, the 600 gallon pond was filled with water, the plumbing was affixed, and the seeds were planted. The garage, although small in scale, has the ability of producing 750 plants at any given time. The aqua gardeners decided to start with romaine lettuce due to the short growing season and wide range of temperatures that the plant can withstand. Each head of lettuce is harvested in approximately 50 days, which allows for 7.5 harvests throughout the year. If the operation was firing on all cylinders (not quite yet), with all of the beds filled, that would allow for the production of 5625 plants in one year. That’s fairly significant for a 250 square foot garage.
Now that the business is underway, Jeremy and Matt are already looking to scale the vertical farm. That means that by July 1 they want to be out of the garage and set up in a 3000 square foot space somewhere in the city by that time. It could mean moving into an existing building, or even building something that would perfectly accommodate their current needs, and growth potential. If all goes according to plan, we could be looking at one of Buffalo’s next big boom industries.
If you think that I’m kidding, then you need to look at the potential. Vertical Fresh Farms has the ability to grow limitless produce year round, regardless of sunlight, temperature, wind or rain. The system has 98% water retention, and requires fluorescent light for the plants (LED lights in the next phase). The system is designed to be built upward, which means that cubic space is more important than linear space. Access to natural sunlight is a bonus, but not necessary. The controlled environment is constant. And it constantly produces fresh, locally grown produce that is reliable for the consumer. Have you ever seen a restaurant menu that boasts that it’s “farm to table”… in the middle January? Well, in the case of vertical farming, that would actually be possible.
Another benefit of vertical farming is the educational component. Can you imagine high school students learning first hand about where their food is coming from? Then heading back to the cafeteria to consume what they previously observed growing? The relationship between the school system that needs this type of operation, and the operation that could rely on the schools for support, is inspirational to say the least. Not to mention the health benefits for the students who notoriously eat garbage.
An additional benefit is the low-cost rehab required to retrofit an existing building to accommodate the vertical farm. There is a giant upside, especially when one considers the growth potential. There are cost saving measures that can help to heat the building, which includes the heat given off from the lights, and the pool temperature that helps to regulate the temperature of the space, while providing needed humidity at the same time (I would think that solar and geothermal could also come into play, as additional heating measures will be necessary).
The pool is populated by koi fish, which excrete solid waste (turned into fertilizer) and ammonia and nitrites. The “dirty” water is then disseminated to the plants, the nitrites are converted into nitrates (filtered by the plants), before the water is returned back to the pool. The bacteria produced from the nitrate conversion provides the plants with sustenance. “We thought about raising tilapia at first,” Jeremy told me. “But then we learned that selling koi is actually a really good business. Not so much with tilapia. We have 200 koi in the tank right now, and we can sell them as they grow. We never have to purchase the fish again, and can sell off the excess when they breed. It was an angle that we didn’t consider at first, but now it’s another part of our business. Raising koi can be a big business.”
Ultimately, Jeremy and Matt anticipate on scaling the business even further by setting up operations in other cities. In fact, the two are scratching their heads, wondering why vertical farms are not already dotting the US landscape as they are in Europe. The US is finally waking up to the technology (not sure how happy Monsanto will be about all of this). I would think that there will soon be a surge in vertical farming efforts due to sprawl, droughts in the west, transportation costs, environmental issues, health issues, farm to table movements, scalability, and myriad other issues.
In the future we will be sourcing more and more plants and produce from vertical farms, including micro greens, flowers, strawberries, cucumbers… you name it and it can be grown, fast, effectively, and organically. Currently there is a sizeable 90,000 square foot operation in Chicago called The Plant. There are also a number of start-ups popping up in other cities. Matt explained to me that the existing vertical farms are extremely secretive from what they have found. “Nobody is willing to share information,” he said. “Which is unfortunate. We want to be as open as possible with our business. It’s important to us that people see what it is that we are doing. We want to share ideas.”
If you want to contact Vertical Fresh Farms about their business, you can find contact information on their website. If you have are affiliated with the school system, or maybe you are a player in the healthcare industry, and you want to get in on the game early, vertical farming is the wave of the future. Personally, I am extremely proud to say that vertical farming has sprung up in Buffalo. This is the type of industry that we need to get behind, sooner rather than later.