Since mankind first began growing crops, the farmer's enemies have been drought, wind, wild temperature swings: curve balls served up by Mother Nature.
Brian Harris is turning out an array of green produce, protected from the elements, in a converted freight container that sits near downtown Grand Rapids.
He calls this a “hydroponic vertical micro-farm,” officially named Green Collar Farms.
A friend tipped Harris off to a wave of urban farming in Florida. He started by assembling a variety of containers and spaces in order to grow crops.
Currently, Harris’s farm is located in a freight converter. “It’s literally an oceangoing, refrigerated shipping container,” said Harris. “This one was built in 2004 and retired I think last year. It’s an insulated 40-foot by eight-foot by nine-foot box that just happens to hold almost two acres of crop.”
The container is growing cold crops right now, including a number of leafy greens.
Hydroponics is promising for farmers. Its reliance on recycling allows the farmer to be conservative with water. “We use about ten percent of what a typical soil farm would use,” said Harris. Growth can occur year-round, since the farm is wholly contained in an insulated space. That means that crop cycles can continue without waiting for the warmer months.
Nutrition studies indicate little difference from field-grown crops and hydroponics, said Harris, and hydroponics may prove to be better for consumers. Since field crops often have to consume their own energies, like sugar, they end up being more bitter and chewy. In hydroponic farms, nutrients simply come to the plants, so the crops don’t have to build roots.
Harris sees a bright future for a hydroponics franchise: “You could place these containers throughout an urban area where they would serve the local restaurants,” said Harris. He’s looking to expand his farm into a warehouse. “A 10,000-square-foot facility would produce 65-70 acres of crops, every seven weeks.”
The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.