Green Sense Farms Builds Bridges By Exporting Know-How

Green Sense Farms Builds Bridges By Exporting Know-How

Green Sense Farms Builds Bridges By Exporting Know-How

Tony V. Martin

A Portage company has brought new meaning to the phrase, east meets west, by exporting its indoor food-growing technology to China.

Green Sense Farms, of Portage, last year partnered with Star Global Holdings, of the People's Republic of China, to begin building a network of indoor vertical farms that use Phillips LED grow lights to grow produce.

The first farm was built in August in the city of Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong Province and will serve the Shenzhen area.

Future plans call for building a network of some 20 farms in Bejing, Shanghai and Chengdu to provide fresh, chemical-free produce to major cities in China, said Green Sense Farms CEO Robert Colangelo.

"We're exporting our technology. Food is a bridge-builder. When feeding people, you rise above the political," Colangelo said.

Being able to grow food indoors is something that is new to China but very much needed, given that 80 percent of the aquifer in that country is affected by industrial output from factories.

"So even getting clean water is a challenge," Colangelo said.

By growing a variety of greens and herbs geared to the palate of the Chinese, Green Sense Farms can increase food security and help feed the Chinese people in an environmentally friendly way, Colangelo said.

"It's fun to be part of it. Rarely do you get to be part of something like this," Colangelo said.

Green start

Green Sense Farms started its first indoor growing operation in AmeriPlex at the Port business park in Portage in March 2014. Arugula, cilantro, kale, peas, lettuce and other crops are grown for markets within an average distance of 75 miles, guaranteeing freshness.

The 20,000-square-foot facility — hailed by Popular Science magazine as one of the year's 100 Greatest Inventions in 2014 — produces a large volume of crops year-round in a small footprint, a fraction of the size of a field farm and using much less land, water and fertilizer.

Most of its customers are restaurants, grocers and produce sellers, including Whole Foods, Strack & VanTil and Meijer.

Green Sense Farms is one of just a couple of commercial indoor vertical farms in the state, said Lyndsay Ploehn, a Purdue Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources based in Porter County.

"And Green Sense Farms is one of the first to take their technology to another country," Ploehn said. "They're not traditional farmers. They are kind of thinking out of the box."

Indoor vertical farms are a supplement to traditional outdoor farming, both Ploehn and Colangelo agree.

"It's not going to replace traditional farming. They're not taking away farmland, but are using abandoned buildings to grow food, and land is expensive to produce what they are producing," Ploehn said.

And there have been traditional greenhouse-type businesses in the past that have grown a variety of vegetables and other produce.

"It (vertical farming) isn't new. What's new is the scale they're doing it in," Ploehn said.

The first China farm is expected to 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 Portage facility, but it's still the start of making a beneficial change in China's food production, Colangelo said.

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, there are plans for many more in the area.

"The expansion possibilities are unlimited in China," Colangelo said.

And there's also 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, Colangelo said.

Expansion plans

Green Sense is expanding elsewhere, too. 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. in South Bend.

 

"We like to be innovative and do things to improve the community and make it more sustainable," Colangelo said.

Green Sense will oversee the farm, but Ivy Tech students will work there in an earn-to-learn setup. Students also will earn credit toward related degrees from the college.

Colangelo's future goals include expanding operations in the United States, Scandinavia and Canada.

Another long-term goal is to spin off a biopharmaceutical business that grows plant proteins using non-GMO seeds that can be synthesized into vaccines and medicine.

Colangelo is a Chicago-area native who has authored books on the environment.

The idea for the indoor urban garden went through many iterations. Colangelo worked with Phillips as a technology partner on lighting and conducted research with Purdue University.

People have been experimenting with vertical farms since the 1980s, Colangelo said. In the case of Green Sense Farms, Colangelo and others integrated and modified an existing system and arrived at a successful product.

"It's ours," Colangelo said.

Colangelo received both his master’s and bachelor’s degrees in earth science from Northeastern Illinois University.

Colangelo spent much of his career in the environmental field, including working with the National Brownfield Association to come up with ideas to clean up the environment.

During his work and research in large cities such as Chicago and New York, the topics of producing food and vertical farming continued to surface.

"We came up with the methodology, and the rest is history," Colangelo said.

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