MSU Leases Downtown Silos to Urban Farming Startup

MSU Leases Downtown Silos to Urban Farming Startup

Two clusters of downtown silos owned by Missouri State University could soon be used to grow lettuce, mushrooms and other vegetables.

The governing board of MSU voted Wednesday to lease the 21 silos to a Springfield startup company, Vertical Innovations, which plans to use water-based methods to grow food.

"We want to see if we can redefine urban farming," said David Geisler, manager and general counsel for the company. "Our interest is very high. We are very much looking forward to putting a new twist on a staple in the agriculture industry in his country."

If the "vertical farming" project is successful, the company hopes to replicate the effort in other abandoned storage silos.

"They see this project as a first step, to see if their technology will work in a silo environment," said Allen Kunkel, director of MSU's Jordan Valley Innovation Center, which is adjacent to the silo clusters. "They hope to duplicate this to other properties in the Midwest that are sitting vacant."

Kunkel said the company could gain a "marketing advantage" if it's able to grow food year-round in a safe, controlled environment.

"We are excited about it," Kunkel said. "It's great to take an old agriculture facility and turn it into something new."

The 21 silos are located in the 300 block of East Phelps Street and the 400 and 500 blocks of North Boonville Avenue. There are eight silos, which stand more than 100 feet tall, adjacent to MSU's Jordan Valley Innovation Center. The other 13 silos and an elevator shaft, which exceeds 210 feet in places, are just south of the others and part of the old MFA facility.

"They are a link to our past," Geisler said. "We're just seeing if we can bring them into the 21st century."

MSU acquired the silos in the early and late 2000s, and they have largely set empty except for rotting grain. The silos include 24,650 square feet and are being leased "as is" with the understanding that the company will clean up and rehabilitate the structures.

The five-year lease agreement, which can be extended up to 35 years, will cost the company $41,950 a year. The company is expected to invest between $500,000 to $1 million to get the project started, Geisler said.

As part of the initial lease, which starts March 1 and runs through early 2021, the company is expected to clean up the silos. That cleanup will include checking for any lead paint and asbestos.

Geisler said after that, the company plans to embark on a feasibility study for its aquaponic and hydroponic methods — which include cultivating plants in water — in a silo or two.

He said the inner mechanics of the silos, which are constructed to move grain upward and downward, should help with distributing the water through the structures. If the test is successful, the project would slowly expand to the other silos.

The earliest vegetables could be produced is the fall.

"I'm pretty excited about this, not only because it's an opportunity to get those silos in better shape and looking better, but it's a real opportunity for our agricultural students to engage in this concept of urban farming," said MSU board vice chair Joe Carmichael. "It's just a real neat project."

Jim Baker, vice president for research and economic development and international programs, said agriculture students and faculty are eager to engage in the project, through hands-on learning and research.

"It's a unique opportunity to try something radically different on vertical farming, which is kind of an interesting technological challenge," Baker said. "The students are very intrigued by it.

"If this concept works, there's going to be a lot of good job creation locally and it's going to spread ... if it works."

By Claudette Riley

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