Area 2 Farms, a certified organic indoor vertical farm, is using Current LED grow lights, organic fertilizers, and vermicomposting to produce a wide variety of food crops for direct sales to local consumers.
Case File Facts
Area 2 Farms
Leafy greens, herbs, microgreens, and root crops including carrots, leeks, onions, turnips, and radishes.
Area 2 Farms cofounder and chief science officer Tyler Baras is very familiar with growing hydroponic food crops in greenhouses and indoor vertical farms. He produced hydroponic crops at commercial operations in Florida and Colorado and assisted other growers as special projects manager at Hort Americas.
“I have been working primarily in greenhouses that grow hydroponic vegetables that were going to wholesalers and retailers, selling to distributors and grocery stores,” Baras said. “Area 2 Farms’ crops go directly to consumers. Our customers on average are less than 2 miles from the farm.
“We are using a community supported agriculture (CSA) model with weekly subscriptions and home deliveries. In order to do this, we wanted to be in close proximity to our customers. We also wanted our customers to be able to come to the farm and tour our facilities. We do tours nearly every weekend. An indoor farm is well suited for sales direct to consumers or other models that have a strong customer tie in. This could also include an indoor farm that offers some type of farm-to-table concept that serves meals onsite.”
Area 2 Farms is located in a former paper storage warehouse that is surrounded by apartments and single-family homes.
“We weren’t looking for a premium retail location,” Baras said. “But our facility is very accessible to the community and there is a large residential population within a mile around us. We also wanted to build a vertical farm operation so we wanted 16-foot clearance vertically which is more typical of a warehouse facility.”
Baras said the cost per square foot for building greenhouses is cheaper than for an indoor vertical farm.
“In most cases, a large percentage of the cost for building an indoor vertical farm is the grow lights needed to produce the crops,” Baras said. “However, what is sometimes forgotten with greenhouses is the minimum scale required in order to be profitable. To produce most leafy greens in a greenhouse with a semi-automated system is going to take a minimum of an acre of production space. And an acre of greenhouse space is a major cost.”
Area 2 Farms model farm is 3,600 square feet of floor space which can support 400-600 CSA members.
“It doesn’t require that much space,” Baras said. “The amount of production is greater than that because we are growing vertically on eight levels. By the end of the year with 3,600 square feet of floor space, total production will be over 6,000 square feet.
“There is a lot that has to fit into the space with the way our production system operates. There are other growers who have achieved higher grow space relative to the floor space. Within this space we also have propagation, refrigeration, and postharvest space. We compost all our growing media and reuse it. It’s been more about having a fully operational farm and how many families can we provide a good portion of a wide variety of crops.”
Baras said he doesn’t expect Area 2 Farms to have to go beyond selling to CSA members in order to be profitable.
“To make an indoor vertical farm viable does not require a lot of CSA members,” he said. “We see 400 members as our goal. We currently have around 200 members as we are ramping up production. By the end of the year, we should have reached 400 members.
“We are in a much better place than some large greenhouse facilities that operate with much smaller margins. Using a CSA model, an indoor vertical farm can make a similar amount of revenue in a much smaller square foot production footprint. An indoor vertical farm can achieve better revenue per square foot on the crops by going direct to consumers.”
From the start, Area 2 Farms facility was designed around growing organically.
“The production system is one that we designed,” Baras said. “We worked with Hort Americas because it carried the products we needed to make the system operate successfully.
“The decision to install Current Arize Factor LEDs came from my personal experience with the lights while working at Hort Americas and knowing the Factor’s light spectrum and how it works well with different crops. I also heard from growers who I respect about their positive experiences with the Factor grow lights. The Factor LEDs really fit well into our production system.”
Baras is also familiar with the Pre-Empt organic fertilizer being used by Area 2 Farms.
“The first job I got after graduating from the University of Florida was with a greenhouse hydroponic vegetable grower in Florida,” he said. “The farm was a trial site for Pre-Empt, which was known as Terra Genesis at that time. We worked with the fertilizer’s inventor on how to use it to produce organic hydroponic leafy greens and tomatoes. It really worked well. Throughout my career as I moved to other growing operations they also began using Pre-Empt.
“When I went to work for Hort Americas, I explained to company president Chris Higgins that Pre-Empt was the best organic fertilizer for doing organic hydroponics. Hort Americas began offering the fertilizer and now it’s one of the company’s best-selling products. This fertilizer makes organic hydroponic production possible.”
Another organic product from Hort Americas that is being used by Baras is Terra Bella, which is a microbial inoculant.
“Terra Bella plays a key role in running our organic system,” he said. “It is a cocktail of beneficial fungi and bacteria that is used to increase the microbial population in both our growing substrate and irrigation water. It helps to reduce pathogen populations and helps to break down phosphorus and mobilize it. It also helps with nitrogen cycling.
“We initially mix the Terra Bella with molasses in an aerated 5-gallon bucket of water for about a day. We can visibly see the colonies growing in the bucket. The mixture is then poured into our irrigation system. When we start with fresh substrate, we soak it with the Terra Bella mixture to establish a beneficial microbial population.”
Unlike many other hydroponic vertical farms, Area 2 Farms is using a substrate it recycles to produce its crops.
“Our growing system blends the best parts of hydroponics and traditional soil-based farming,” Baras said. “Our substrate is initially inert and mainly comprised of organic coir and sand, but we build a rich living soil out of these inputs using diverse microbial inoculants and vermicomposting.
“Most growers use a substrate one time and then discard it. After we harvest the plants, we take the used substrate with plant roots and leaf debris in it and then vermicompost it. We put the substrate in large bins and add earthworms. In about three weeks the worms have completely broken down all the plant debris and the substrate is ready for reuse.”
The worms consume the plant matter and the substrate is fortified with worm castings.
“The substrate structure improves every time it goes through this production and composting cycle,” Baras said. “We are two years into the process and are still using the same original substrate we started with. The substrate has improved in fertility and structure during the time it has been used to produce plants. As the substrate breaks down, we incorporate fresh coir to help improve the substrate’s physical properties. This ensures there is proper drainage. The substrate is living so there isn’t any reason to sterilize it and we’ve never discarded any of it.”
There were several reasons why the Current Arize Factor LEDs fit well into the Area 2 Farms vertical farm production system.
“The angle at which the light is delivered from the Factor fixtures is really wide which enabled us to use less fixtures,” Baras said. “With other fixtures we would have needed more of them to get the same light distribution. This really simplified the system installation.
“Factor grow lights are ideal where there is tight spacing and the fixtures are very close to the plant canopy. In most vertical farms the plants are packed in tight layers. The Factor lights allowed us to space the plant levels closer together and still achieve a good distribution of light. That was key for us to be able to pack in more layers of plants.”
“One Factor light fixture was able to replace three 4-foot Link fixtures,” Baras said. “We tested the two lights side-by-side in the first couple of prototype systems that we built. The ease of installation and light canopy spread of the Factor lights made our decision easy.”
One of the major benefits of incorporating the Terra Bella beneficial microbial inoculant is its reduction of the pathogen populations and biofilm in irrigation systems.
“Biofilm can develop in the water reservoirs because of the amount of organic matter in the production systems,” Baras said. “We have seen a major reduction in biofilm after incorporating Terra Bella. It has helped to stabilize the biofilm so that it doesn’t get out of hand.
“We drain the water reservoirs every couple of weeks to refresh them and flush out the irrigation system. We rarely do what would be considered a deep cleaning because we don’t have a major issue with biofilm development.”