An automated sea of leafy greens
Northeast Ohio is known for manufacturing – but assembly lines aren’t just for making cars and heavy machinery anymore. They can also be used to grow fresh produce.
John Bonner’s factory floor is a sea of leafy greens- lettuce, basil, water cress, and arugula packed in neat rows. He co-founded Great Lakes Growers with partner Tim Ryan and their year-old, acre-plus greenhouse in Burton is as automated as any production facility. Small tubes feed nutrient enriched water into each trough. A toothed track automatically makes room for the plants as they spread and grow.
Bonner demonstrates the process that transports the 26-foot long tray of baby lettuce plants grown in a trickle of water. He says that if we pull a trough off the other end, "this whole floor will instantly come alive and it will move one space.”
Every morning, Bonner and a small crew harvest abou 5,000 leafy greens, roots and all, and ship them to nine Cleveland area restaurants and three local grocery chains – where they’re labeled ‘living lettuce.’
Plastic foam for hydroponic propagation
Like all plants, this lettuce started from a seed. But instead of soil, Bonner’s hydroponic plants are sown in blocks of water-loving polymer foam. And that’s where another local company comes in, Smithers-Oasis.
Smithers' Oasis Grower Solutions division makes the foam blocks.
Smithers-Oasis got its start in the 1950’s making that green foam florists use for cut flowers. The company is now focusing more and more on hydroponics.
It’s working with Great Lakes Growers to develop materials that help lettuce sprout and grow without soil. Marketing Manager Nathan Keil explains that the growing medium is essentially an engineered, or blown, plastic that is formulated for rooting efficiency.
Smithers’ foam holds enough water to sprout seeds, and then allows the roots to spread in the hydroponic solution. The technique is being perfected in the company's new experimental greenhouses outside the main production facility in Kent.
The nutrient film technique
Keil lifts a mat of roots that dangles in a plastic pipe filled with water. The water is infused with a mixture of the 16 nutrients essential for plant growth.
In this type of production, Keil says the growing medium is actually the nutrient solution, "so the roots are just growing in this water bath as opposed to a pot of soil.”
It’s called the ‘nutrient film technique.'
Keil says with this type of system, "you can use about 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture." He says hydroponics is increasingly used to grow food in places with limited land and resources.
World-wide, hydroponics has grown to an $8 billion industry that Smithers-Oasis is hoping to tap into. Keil says in Singapore, Japan and China, growing vegetables indoors in water is well-established, but the technique is spreading to Europe and North America.
Manufacturing meets agriculture in the future of food production
In the U.S., growers like John Bonner at Great Lakes are breaking new ground.
“We developed this system over three years. It’s not something you can go online and buy. We’ve invested a lot of money getting it wrong to get it right.”
Bonner grew up on a traditional farm and knows the heartache that goes with relying on nature for your livelihood. But in his one indoor acre, he produces the equivalent of 25 acres of Ohio crop land.
For Bonner, hydroponics and the assembly-line model represent the future of food production.
“It’s almost where manufacturing meets agriculture, that’s really what it is.”
Smithers-Oasis in Kent is also investing heavily in the food-factory model. It now has 19 divisions worldwide.
But in Ohio, hydroponics means locally-grown, living-lettuce fresh from the factory, even in the middle of winter.