AgWeb, April 22, 2021
Many farms across the country have struggled with not having enough help lately. The Western Growers, representing farmers across the Southwest and California, has announced a global harvest automation initiative, with a goal of automating 50% of harvest within the next 10 years. The major driver behind that technology is the lack of available workers and the cost of labor. AgDay’s Clinton Griffiths recently visited a growing facility in northwestern Indiana that’s doing more with less and also isn’t concerned about the weather.
A spring snow is flying, but that doesn’t bother the millions of baby leaf lettuce plants grounded inside this northern Indiana greenhouse. Pure Green Farms and its 174,000 square foot facility is a fully automated, controlled-environment, hydroponic greenhouse. From seeding to seedling, harvest to home, this lettuce is never once touched by human hands.
“The ready to eat salad industry alone in the USA is a $5 billion category and that’s just here in the USA, it does not count Canada. I think the opportunity is enormous,” says Joe McGuire, CEO of Pure Green Farms.
The indoor concept is gaining popularity across the globe.
“I’ve realized there are more and more different kinds of controlled environment agriculture they call it,” says The Packer’s Amy Sowder. “It’s also part of the local movement, so they highlight how they feed people within a certain 100-mile region.”
Started by a group of farmland investors, Pure Green Farms is targeting grocery stores within 300 to 400 miles of South Bend, Indiana, in a bid to maintain freshness and shelf life, Griffiths reports.
“This does have a better shelf life than the traditional supply chain models. Simply because you’re in the middle of the population centers, you’re not having to travel four, five, six, seven days to get here,” McGuire adds.
And while the concept sounds simple, the six acres of systems created to pull it off are anything but.
“We’ve taken a lot of care for the greenhouse structure itself and its climate management technologies: the heating, the lighting, the air movement, even down to the atmosphere and regulating the concentration of CO2,” says Matthew Gura, director of operations for Pure Green Farms.
From three different screens in the glass enclosure to help manage light and temperature, to recycling and using an estimated 90% less water compared to field grown lettuce or operating in a fully pest free environment.
“Consistency overall in fresh produce is always difficult because you’re always faced with ups and downs both in labor and in the weather and inputs and so on,” McGuire says. “So here we’re controlling it much better, and we believe that we can be way more consistent.”
Beyond the atmospheric systems are the robots doing all of the work. This drive to robotic greenhouses is the growing cost of labor.
“The rising costs of labor and labor shortages those two factors are definitely something that makes the robotics angle and automated angle more attractive. I’ve heard from other sources that they have to come up with new technologies in order to survive,” Sowder adds.
At Pure Green Farms, the future has arrived.
“Machines aren’t perfect, so on a day-to-day basis, we want to make sure that we have a really robust preventative maintenance program to prevent machines going down,” Gura says.
“It’s not just a luxury or something that’s cool, but it’s a necessity for the future,” Sowder continues.
A future for a farm, where every aspect of the operation is controlled, and every touch is touchless, regardless of the environment beyond the glass.