About 5 years ago in 2016 when I landed in Iowa, I couldn’t fathom the magnitude of corn farms that I saw here stretching in all the directions, as they disappeared into the horizon. It took me a few months to normalize and make peace with Iowa, the heart of the corn belt. So a week ago, when I came across a local farmer growing lettuce, I knew this was something different.
Visiting an indoor farm has been at the top of my bucket list ever since I claimed the title of being an indoor farming armchair expert. Writing a few blogs, and reading countless articles about the topic acting as my credentials. As all the big guns of the indoor farming industry are either on the west coast in San Francisco, or are spread throughout the east coast. A few of them are scattered through the Midwest, but none of them near me. So when an opportunity came knocking on my door, here in south-west Iowa, I couldn’t let it pass.
The farm that I got to visit was True Food Farms, an 8600 sq. ft hydroponic farm based in Stanton, Iowa. It is run by Darren Barkman who originally hails from Canada and grew up on a farm in Manitoba. Darren, who has been farming indoors for the last 20 years was gracious enough to spend an hour of his time to give me a tour of his farm.
How did you decide to grow lettuce in Iowa?
I moved with my family to the Stanton area about 5 years ago and was in the indoor farming business in Tennessee before that. The different varieties of lettuce we grew there are more popular in the urban areas. Around this region however, Iceberg and Romaine are the only two popular varieties, so the market has tremendous potential for the other varieties that we grow. Also the traditional lettuce is typically grown in the warm climate of the Salinas valley in California. Once harvested, these lettuce heads travel 1500 miles on a truck taking anywhere between 5 and 10 days to reach the store shelves in Iowa.
True Food Farms is changing that with hydroponically grown lettuce that hits the local grocery shelves within 24 hours of harvesting. Also, we are bringing several different varieties of lettuce like Butterhead, French Crisp, Frisee among others. It will help the locals experience True Food that is clean, healthy, and safe to eat and is grown year-round locally. It doesn’t get any better than this.
How would you grow through the winter months?
A hydroponic greenhouse crop doesn’t need soil to grow and needs 95% less water than a traditional farm. Being in Iowa that has a gloomy winter for about 6 months, where the sun doesn’t show up most of the time between November and March. But a plant needs light to grow, so we have installed LED lights for the winter. These lights emit a spectrum of light that is needed for the plant growth. They are controlled by an automated dimming system that reacts to the intensity of the light outside the farm. Also, based on the recipe for the lettuce it will adjust the light emitted to create the perfect growing conditions all throughout winter.
What about the harsh cold of the the winters?
When the temperatures drop below a certain number, the heating system kicks in. The floor is heated by hot water running through the pipes spread throughout the floor. It is a highly controlled environment and nothing is left to the unpredictable outside climate giving the ability to grow fresh lettuce even through the cold winters.
What is your biggest cost for the farm?
Until a few years ago, the seeds for growing lettuce indoors were the same as those used for growing outdoors. But nowadays the seeds are bred to suit the indoor farms. Although they are not super expensive, but for the volume of seeds we go through in a year, it can add up.
However, the capital needed to set up the greenhouse is the highest piece of the cost pie. In order to control the environment inside, we had to install all the automated systems, the lights, heating, all these consume electricity, making the power bill it’s biggest number.
What happens when power goes out?
Since it is a highly automated system that needs a lot of power, we have backup generators that are capable of supporting the farm to run the systems. If the generators fail to switch on in the middle of a winter black out, we have about an hour before losing the produce.
What is your biggest challenge on the farm?
We are still in the initial stages of setting up the farm but getting it up and running smoothly is the current big challenge. An indoor farm faces the challenge of bugs and diseases, you cannot keep the bugs out but only delay them from coming in. Using helpful insects like ladybugs that fight and eat away the harmful bugs is a healthy option for pest control.
In order to control the diseases, experience is needed to control and monitor the nutrient and pH levels of the water circulated to the crop. Since the whole farm is supplied by the same nutrient solution, any significant change can affect the whole crop.
You will always have problems, you need to keep on top of them. If you let a problem grow, only then it becomes a big problem.
Where do you plan to sell your produce?
Although we are not operating at full capacity, we sell our current production under our brand True Food Farms itself. We are currently supplying our delicious leafy greens to the south west Iowa region at Hy-Vee stores at Redoak, Clarinda, Shenandoah, and Omaha. We are in talks with Fareway waiting on their corporate approval.
What is next for True Food Farms?
Focus for now is on this farm, to get it up and running at full capacity. We will be hiring more people to help with harvesting and packaging of the produce. In order to reach more stores, we plan on expanding and adding more farms in the area.
After watching all the videos about indoor farms on the internet, being able to tour a hydroponic farm in-person has just increased my curiosity about the indoor farming industry. I was able to get a high-level understanding of operating and setting up a hydroponic farm. Darren has promised me to let me bug him again in a few months when the farm is fully operational and I will be back with an update to this post.