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Never heard of indoor farming? That's about to change

Posted: 5:00 AM, Oct 30, 2018
Updated: 2018-10-30 13:01:29-04

Never heard of indoor farming? 

That's about to change. 

Cincinnati-based 80 Acres Farms is in the middle of an expansion that will triple the size of its current Spring Grove location on Este Avenue and potentially revolutionize farming.

"It's going to be a fully automated farm," said Mike Zelkind, CEO of 80 Acres Farms. The company plans to open two new locations in Hamilton during the first half of 2019. 

The indoor farming facilities will be the first of their kind to use robotics in the farming process.

"(It) will essentially allow us to automate the process from seeding all the way to harvesting," Zelkind said.

Zelkind and president Tisha Livingston started 80 Acres Farms in 2015. They took the company's name from the fact that the Este Avenue building is able to produce 80 acres worth of produce despite being located on just a quarter of an acre.

The company also boasts the world's first completely indoor, in-building vine crop room, where workers are able to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and strawberries.

The idea is to grow the produce cleanly and quickly so that when it is harvested, they are able to deliver to restaurants and grocery stores within 24 hours.

"It's a lot fresher than anything else you'll see," said Robert Norris, head grower for 80 Acres Farms.

"Most of the other produce that is on the produce shelves gets shipped from California or Florida," Norris said.

That time on the road, or what he calls "food miles," degrades the food quality, shortens the shelf life and leads to food waste, according to operations supervisor Samantha Bergman.

"You're going get something freshly picked," she said. "And, you're going to get at least two weeks out of it." 

The company currently provides produce to local restaurants and grocery stores like Jungle Jim's, Whole Foods and Clifton Market. It also provides produce to Dorothy Lane Market in the Dayton area.

"Our goal is to provide the cleanest, healthiest food to our local communities, grown in the most sustainable way possible," Zelkind said.

They use a process called precision agriculture, which includes using LED lighting to promote photosynthesis and using filtered air and water that is piped to the plants with nutrients. The delicate plant roots are protected by controlling the temperature with water chillers. It's all done with very little waste.

"We're a hydroponic farm," Bergman said. "One of the really cool things is we have 97 percent less water waste than traditional farming."

"All of the evaporation gets captured back into the system and is put back into our nutrient solution," Norris said. "So, everything goes back to the plant."

They've seen success with their process based on a demand for produce. Two shipping containers on the side of their current location are used for additional growing space. Bergman said there's been a big demand for kale.

"We were totally sold out and people really, really wanted kale," she said. "We were getting phone calls, 'Please give us more kale.'" 

Zelkind said they don't label their produce organic, even though they don't use pesticides. He said the indoor growing process they use is cleaner that traditional farming, and the opposite of genetically modified organisms.

"What you do with GMOs is you take the original genetics of the plant and you try to modify it to survive in a specific environment," he said. "We create a perfect environment for those genetics to succeed and to thrive."

"We are the future of farming," Bergman said.