July 23, 2024

Hi-tech indoor farm in South Bend taking on lettuce market

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — It’s a chilly, wet and windy day — enough to remind us that winter still isn’t too far in the rearview mirror.

But inside a new 6-acre building on West Calvert Street in South Bend, Matt Gura is keeping a close watch over a sea of baby plants that fill a greenhouse about the size of two big-box retailers, or 174,000 square feet.

It’s like a warm day in early summer inside the building, which uses computers and monitors to control light, liquid nutrients, temperature, humidity and even plant-loving carbon dioxide.

Gura, director of operations at Pure Green Farms — a hydroponic indoor farm on the city’s southwest side — touts it as the “most technologically advanced leafy green greenhouse in the world.”

“And it’s in South Bend,” he said.

Though it might seem odd to build a massive indoor farm in northern Indiana — considering the cold weather and the perma-cloud that seemingly hangs over the region each winter — leaders at South Bend-based Ceres Partners, an agricultural investment firm, studied the project for years.

They believe there is an opportunity to disrupt the lettuce trade, which is largely dominated by growers in California who ship products to markets in the Midwest.

There’s more sunlight here than most of us realize, and the fact that it doesn’t get too hot in the summer means that the cost of trying to keep the building cool won’t be out of line, Gura said.

A combination of LED and high-pressure sodium lights will supplement the light needs of the plants, and there’s an automated shade that can be used to cut down on light coming in or out of the greenhouse as needed.

In the winter, the indoor farm will use offal heat from the nearby South Bend Ethanol plant, and discussions are underway to possibly use carbon dioxide produced by the facility if it makes economic sense for both businesses.

Ceres also liked the location because it’s near its headquarters near the University of Notre Dame, as well as major transportation links that will be crucial to getting the leafy greens produced by Pure Green Farms to grocers, restaurants and other customers throughout the region, said Brandon Zick, chief investment officer for the firm.

“There’s 55 million people within a 300-mile radius,” said Joe McGuire, a seasoned produce distribution executive who was brought in to serve as CEO of Pure Green Farms. “There’s 75 million people within 400 miles.”

That distance gives Pure Green a significant shipping advantage over traditional leafy green producers that are located in California, Arizona and other far-away locations.

By the time lettuce is harvested and processed in California, for example, it might take 10 days to reach store shelves in the Midwest. Conversely, the romaine, arugula and leaf lettuces grown at Pure Green could be on store shelves in a couple of days or even less.

“We think there’s going to be strong demand for fresher produce that’s grown in the market,” McGuire said.

The first shipments have gone out to Kroger stores in Indiana, and it won’t be long before Pure Green is available at Martin’s Super Markets and other grocers.

Beyond the freshness factor, Pure Green believes it can separate itself from other salad providers because it is not using pesticides or other sprays that might be needed to control bugs and plant diseases outdoors.

Plant protection and eliminating chances for contamination are of paramount importance at the South Bend facility, which currently has 20 workers.

Employees crossing into the greenhouse walk through a tray of shoe sanitizer and wear gloves, coats and hair nets.

After seeds are inserted into a blend of sanitized peat and wood fiber by machine, the planting trays move into the greenhouse, where they are given a nutrient drink while germinating under less intense light and then growing up under full light.

Depending on the variety, it will take about 25 days for the romaine, arugula and leaf lettuces to reach the stage where they are harvested by lightning-fast cutters, blended together, packaged and boxed for shipment.

“From planting to packaging, it’s never touched by human hands until it’s opened by the consumer,” McGuire said.

Nothing is wasted. The nutrient mix that isn’t consumed by the plants is collected, cleaned, tested and reused; the peat material in the growing trays will be composted and used for other agricultural purposes.

“We use 90% less water than field-grown lettuces,” said Gura, who previously served as director of operations at Ceres-owned Hop Head Farms in Baroda, Michigan, before joining the team at Pure Green. “I believe it’s the future of growing.”

Though current laws don’t allow the lettuce to be labeled as organic, Zick and McGuire indicated there could be court challenges as controlled-environment growing facilities continue to spring up around the country.

“It’s not classifiable as organic because we don’t put it into the ground,” McGuire said.

Though indoor facilities have been used to produce tomatoes and other crops, producing leaf lettuces at a significant volume is a more recent phenomenon, brought about by shipping distances, food safety and the push for locally produced food.

Beyond the freshness factor, lettuces produced at Pure Green Farms could eliminate 500,000 truck miles annually and up to 300,000 pounds of food waste each year, according to figures provided by Ceres.

Ariana Torres, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, said the timing is right for ventures such as Pure Green because people are consuming more salad and insisting on higher quality produce.

“Consumers want something that is local and fresher,” Torres said. “People also are more aware of food safety, and the pandemic showed that there can be disruptions in the supply chain.”

Though there are competitors in the market — such as Gotham Greens in New York and Chicago and Little Leaf Farms in Massachusetts — Pure Green is still at the front-edge of a what could be an enormous trend in the future, Zick said.

“The market is huge and only a tiny fraction is grown indoors,” said Zick, the Ceres executive. “Though we won’t be the first to do it, we’re still getting into it early and gaining important experience.”

Looking ahead, the business needs to dial in its efficiencies by fine-tuning its highly-automated growing, harvesting and packaging processes, Gura said.

About $25 million already has been spent on the project, but up to three additional phases are planned. Eventually, Green Farms could have about 16 acres of enclosed greenhouse and about four acres under roof for planting, processing and packaging.

With 64 acres owned by Green Farms and an additional 280 adjoining acres owned by its parent organization — Ceres — there’s plenty of room for growth, including the possibility of bringing in other operators that are experienced in growing tomatoes, strawberries and other produce.

“We’ve been interested in developing an ag tech campus there,” said Zick, adding that partnerships could be developed with Purdue, Notre Dame and other universities to work on problems associated with controlled-environment agriculture.

South Bend Mayor James Mueller was impressed by what he saw during a tour of Pure Green Farms on March 26.

“A lot of people would be surprised by what’s going on there and the level of technology,” Mueller said. “It’s part laboratory, part agriculture and part advanced manufacturing.”

And he said he’s looking forward to seeing the South Bend-produced lettuces on stores shelves.

“Their farm will serve as a model for sustainable and advanced farming techniques,” he said.