By Stan Maddux
MUNCIE, Ind. – It takes about 2 million acres of farmland to produce the amount of lettuce and other leafy green vegetables that soon will be rolling out of a 200,000-square-foot industrial building in Indiana.
Living Greens Farm, one of the largest indoor vertical aeroponic farms in the country, is expanding to the facility in Muncie.
The operation, which features automation to help raise very high-quality crops, is expected to open early in 2023.
According to company officials, the indoor farm will have the capacity to grow and harvest 5 million pounds of leafy greens annually, using 95 percent less water and 99 percent less land than traditional farms. There will also be no pesticides.
“The Muncie facility is in an ideal location to take a significant step in our national geographical expansion,” said George Pastrana, CEO of the company.
The building, empty since erected in 2015, will be turned into a state-of-the-art, vertical, aeroponic farm employing about 120 people.
Pastrana said the facility will help better supply current customers of LGF, such as Walmart and Whole Foods, and allow for expansion to additional leading retail and wholesale customers across the Midwest and parts of the south.
A variety of leafy greens will be packaged into ready-to-eat bagged greens and salad kits. The products will be available on store shelves within 24 hours after harvest in markets from Pittsburgh to Kansas City and Milwaukee to Charlotte.
“Indiana is leaning into the future of agriculture technology with company partners like Living Greens Farm choosing to grow next-gen solutions here in the heart of America’s largest commodity crop production region,” said Indiana Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers. He said the investment should trigger more innovation and growth in the state’s AgTech sector.
Living Greens Farm, headquartered in Minnesota, has a full product line that includes salads, microgreens and herbs.
Dr. Krishna Nemali, with the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, at Purdue University, said aeroponic farms are much more efficient in their use of water because crops have access to a solution of water and nutrients kept in grow trays. A vast majority of the water on traditional farms is absorbed into the soil before reaching the roots.
In addition, Nemali said water not absorbed by crops in aeroponic farms is returned to a large tank or reservoir and used later when the crops become thirsty again. “You save a lot of water,” he said.
Nemali said production for every square foot is also much higher in aeroponic farms because crops grow on racks. Nemali said indoor farms are also in production year-round because of their controlled environment.
Indoor farming is still a relatively new but growing practice that represents just a small percentage of the total produce raised in the United States.
Despite its advantages, Nemali doesn’t believe indoor cultivating of food is a threat to traditional farming, at least not now. He said the space and technology doesn’t exist for indoor farms to grow larger crops like corn, soybeans and apples.
“We still need those commodity crops to be grown outdoors,” he said.
He also said indoor crops are more of a specialty item, leaving plenty of consumer demand for leafy greens and other conventionally raised smaller vegetables and fruit.
Currently, Nemali is involved in research to try to maximize the genetic potential of indoor crops so they’re even healthier and more profitable for growers.
How to increase nutrition and antioxidant levels above what’s normally contained in the crops from slight changes in artificial lighting and other climate controls is among the specific focuses of his work.
“Customers tend to pay a higher price for such produce because it’s got a higher quality value,” he said.