Indoor farming

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, May 16th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington.

Coming next:  indoor farming.

Today more than half the world’s population lives in cities. As the world’s population continues to grow, that means many more urban mouths to feed.

REICHARD: Over the past decade, indoor vegetable farms have been popping up across the country— especially in urban areas where open land for farming is hard to find.

WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg visited an indoor farm in rural Minnesota that’s raising lettuce without soil.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Kevin Ortenblad’s farmyard isn’t anything out of the ordinary. It has a large white farmhouse with a pond in the backyard and big red shops. You’d never guess one of those shops holds a cutting-edge crop.

ORTENBLAD: We’ll have bibb lettuce, green Oak leaf lettuce, Romaine lettuce, and red oak leaf lettuce harvesting. Next week, the following week, we’ll have some arugula.

The lettuce itself isn’t remarkable. What’s remarkable is how it’s grown. This is a new indoor lettuce farm called Lettuce Abound….get it? It comes from Second Corinthians 9 verse 3.

ORTENBLAD: Let us abound in all good things. I have a friend that said, ‘you should’ve called it let us alone because I haven’t seen you in months.’

Ortenblad farmed outside for 34 years but with retirement on the horizon, he decided he wanted to try a different type of farming.

To see his new indoor crop, we have to wash our hands and put on hair nets and white coats. We don’t want to contaminate the lettuce.

ORTENBLAD: When you go into the room, there’ll be a foot wash there. You gotta stand in or they just make sure both your feet hit.

AUDIO: Sound entering the shop

Inside the shop, standing from floor to ceiling, 12 pairs of vertical panels lean back-to-back at a 15 degree angle. Rows of bright green lettuce bud out of shelves in the paneling.

ORTENBLAD: Each unit is eight feet high and they’re 32 feet long.

Plexiglass covers the end of each pair of panels. As we look into the dark space between the two panels, Ortenblad points out what makes these plants unique.

ORTENBLAD: In here, you can see the root, the root structure. The roots do not sit in dirt. They actually just sit in the air.

Yep, the roots are just hanging in midair. No dirt, no water. Ortenblad is using what’s called an Aeroponic growing system. He’s only the second grower in the world using this particular type of Aeroponics. Most Aeroponic plants grow horizontally— from start to finish. Ortenblad’s grow mostly vertically.

Why vertically? Space efficiency. Ortenblad’s shop is a little smaller than a high school basketball court. But in one year, this small indoor farm can produce as much lettuce as 180 acres of land can grow in a single season.

The seeds are planted in what’s called rockwool. It’s like a wiry insulation made of ground rock.

ORTENBLAD: So we drop one seed to each hole and this was planted on the 24th. So this was six days old.

Once the fledgling sprouts are old enough, workers move them to a vertical panel, where they remain for the next three-and-a-half weeks.

ORTENBLAD: We hang them up and they just grow like crazy.

Lettuce Abound uses lights that project the same spectrum as the sun. A computer controls the bright bars, moving them up and down the panels.


ORTENBLAD: This light bar will move into three positions. This is the top position. Then it moves down here. So this area gets a little more light and it goes way down to the bottom so that that gets light.

Ortenblad says the lights shine on the lettuce for 19 hours every day. That’s way more sunlight than plants get outside. Night is much shorter.

ORTENBLAD: It’s off for five hours, simulating night. It’s not cold, but we sort of trick them into the resting because when the lights on it, this is extremely accelerated growth.

So accelerated that Lettuce Abound has cut lettuce growing time in half. Outdoor lettuce takes about 60 days to reach full maturity. These are harvest-ready in 30.

But back to those lettuce roots suspended in mid air. Because the roots are just hanging out, they need water— often. Every 12 minutes. An automatic watering system sprays fertilized water on the roots.

ORTENBLAD: We want the roots to get really dry and then we’ll water them because it’s like when you’re really thirsty, you probably drink a glass of water faster than you do if you’re not thirsty.

That technique, along with recycling the water, cuts down on waste.

ORTENBLAD: We’ll use maybe 7 percent of the water that mother nature uses.

That’s right. Lettuce Abound uses 93 percent less water than it would take to grow lettuce outside.

Ortenblad says indoor farming can address a problem in the northern U.S.— making nutrient-rich food available even in the winter months.

ORTENBLAD: Leafy greens is something that, especially in West Central Minnesota, it hasn’t been introduced with the nutritional value that it has and people eat iceberg lettuce. If we harvested today will deliver it tomorrow. It’ll last longer in your fridge because ours isn’t going to be 10 days old when you get it.

The farm sells its lettuce to local restaurants and supermarkets. And hopefully in the fall, to school cafeterias.

The other upside of indoor farming is control.

ORTENBLAD: You can put up a building and do this and farm inside with no dust, no hail, no rain, no freezing temperatures, no mud and 12 months out of the year.

But starting an indoor farm is expensive. Computers and equipment break down, and they depend on electricity.

ORTENBLAD: Our biggest nightmare is if we lose power because the plants can go for a couple of two, three or four days without lights, they’ll be fine. They can go three hours without water.

And so far the indoor farms are limited in what they can grow without dirt.

ORTENBLAD: There’s a lot of crops that do not work for this. Some of the root crops, like potatoes, I don’t know how potatoes would work because they’d be hanging on the inside. So some of the crops are absolutely going to have to use dirt or somebody’s going to have to figure it out.

Kevin Ortenblad says in the future he thinks strawberries might also work in his vertical panels. But for now, he’s happy just to keep the community’s salad plate full.  

ORTENBLAD: There’s a large move to, to get local things in local stores because people want to keep it local.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from New London, Minnesota.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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