Green Sense Farms' growth spreads to China, coming to South Bend

Green Sense Farms' growth spreads to China, coming to South Bend

The futuristic growing operation of Portage, Ind.,-based Green Sense Farms is sprouting in China, making the indoor vertical farm company just months away from being one of the largest in the world.

Green Sense Farms started in March 2014 in Portage, helping bring the revolutionary way to provide fresh, local and organic produce to the mainstream. With rows of towers stacked high with leafy greens growing under the pinkish glow of LED lights — all inside a climate-controlled facility — Green Sense can produce year-round with a much smaller footprint than a normal farm.

It's a way of farming that will provide a great service in China, says Robert Colangelo, Green Sense "founding farmer" and CEO. And it will also provide a service in South Bend when it opens a vertical farm in partnership with Ivy Tech in the next year.

Indoor, vertical farming is something just now catching on in China. And even though Green Sense Farms is the largest in the U.S., you still don't see many operations like them domestically either.

China has had some vertical farms, Colangelo says, but they are small, show farms. Green Sense will be a large-scale commercial farm producing consistently, he says.

The first China farm will produce 750,000 to 1 million heads of lettuce and about 1.5 million leafy greens per year. It's a production level slightly less than the 20,000-square-foot Portage facility, but it's still the start of making a beneficial change in China's food production.

First there's the population the farm can potentially serve.

Green Sense is starting out in an area of China that has about 50 million people in a 50-mile radius. And after the first farm opens, there are plans for many more in the area.

"The expansion possibilities are unlimited in China," Colangelo says. "Building multiple farms is going to be no problem."

Then there's the quality of product the farm will be growing. China's dense population and large industrial climate has taken away farmland and highly polluted the air, water and soil. By growing produce in vertical towers, Green Sense needs little space compared to a traditional farm.

Green Sense also controls every aspect of the growing process, like temperature, humidity, nutrients and light exposure, ensuring the highest quality product. All of the water and air used inside the facility are also recirculated and purified.

The China farm is a little behind schedule though, says Colangelo.

"We are about a month behind," he says, "but even with those challenges we have done an exceptional job keeping it moving."

Now he hopes it will be up and running in September. Even though Green Sense is behind the original schedule, this farm is going faster than the original.

China is not the only area where Green Sense is expanding. South Bend will see one of the vertical farms popping up this fall. Green Sense is partnering with Ivy Tech Community College on a $3 million, 20,000-square-foot farm to be built at 250 E. Sample St.

The contract is in the final stages of negotiations, Colangelo says, and they hope to break ground in August or September with the farm being complete in the first quarter of 2017.

"We think this is a great location for our next farm," he says of South Bend.

The partnership creates a hands-on learning and working environment with students earning credits toward related degrees from Ivy Tech. The farm will also still be a commercial business, Colangelo says, and there are discussions with local hospitals, grocery stores and colleges to purchase produce from the facility.

In the partnership with Ivy Tech, Green Sense Farms is also focusing on education and training for workers since Colangelo has noticed a shortage of entry level workers for the vertical farming as well as the food service business.

Since they have found many of those skills to be the same, the teaching farm will not only benefit vertical grow operations, but much of the food industry, he says. There's even an internal discussion in Green Sense, Colangelo says, about how to help Chinese workers learn at the Ivy Tech facility.

"We thought this becomes a very integral part of who we are," he says of education. "We have the same needs as our customers."

Lincoln Wright's column runs on Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at LWright@sbtinfo.com or 574-235-6324. You can also talk retail at Facebook.com/thebasket and at Twitter.com/marketbasket.

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