The big, blocky building just north of Interstate 70 looks like all the other big, blocky buildings along a commercial and industrial strip in Aurora. Visitors have to scrub up, put on masks, hair nets and lab coats and walk on an antimicrobial mat before entering a massive clean room.
But the products being tended to under magenta-colored LED lights aren’t computer chips or other high-tech parts. They are different varieties of lettuce that will be harvested and shipped to Denver-area grocery stores and restaurants.
The result of the highly engineered systems and technology is fresh, nutritious and non-genetically-modified food, said Aric Nissen, chief marketing officer for Kalera, a Florida-based company that builds and operates indoor, vertical farms.
The company began operations about a month ago in a 90,000-square-foot warehouse, which Nissen estimates is running at 30% capacity. In the next several months, Kalera expects to expand its workforce of 40 to about 100 and its operations to full capacity to harvest approximately 15 million heads of lettuce, or 2.5 million pounds.
Kalera has farms in Orlando, Fla., Atlanta, Munich and Kuwait. Farms are under construction in Honolulu, Seattle and Singapore.
“We’re trying to produce food at scale in an urban area, close to where people live,” Nissen said. “We want to let people know there’s technology involved, but it’s producing food naturally, without the use of chemicals or genetic modification.”
Kalera’s farms use hydroponics — water — to grow lettuce and microgreens, or vegetable seedlings. The New York Times reports the number of vertical farms is expected to expand as demand for year-round produce and the impact of climate change on agriculture increase. The industry is forecast to grow globally from $3.1 billion in 2021 to $9.7 billion by 2026, according to the data analysis company ResearchandMarkets.com.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says besides providing fresh, locally grown produce, vertical farms could help boost food production as the world’s population is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050.
“Why vertical farming” is a question Nissen gets asked a lot. His answer?
“We’re running out of farm land,” Nissen said. “There is not enough arable land on the planet now to feed all the people who will be living on the planet. What do we want to do about that?”
Growing the produce in areas where it will be sold means fewer cross-country truck trips and fewer greenhouse-gas emissions, he added.
And because Kalera is a business looking to thrive, it is interested in helping shape an industry that is poised to grow.
“We’re trying to change the world, but if we want to be environmentally sustainable over the long term, we have to figure out a way to be economically sustainable,” Nissen said.
Kalera is selling its products in 200 Denver-area King Soopers and to a growing number of restaurants. Nissen said the sales team is working to increase the number of customers. One of the pitches is that Kalera employees pick and ship out the produce fresh every day.
A criticism of vertical farming is its hefty upfront costs. Nissen acknowledged that a commercial vertical farm is expensive to build and run. He didn’t disclose what the Aurora facility cost to open, but said a large-scale facility “is roughly in the neighborhood of $10 million.”
“We still expect a good return economically,” Nissen added.
Another challenge is the large amount of energy the operation requires. The plants in rows that are 12 stacks high spend between 14 and 16 hours over a day under magenta light, a blending of red and blue light considered optimal for plant growth.
Nissen said the LED lights in the warehouse are highly efficient. The company also has an arrangement with the power company to keep the lights on at night when many other customers aren’t using much electricity.
“We get our energy from the grid and over time the grid is becoming more and more renewable,” Nissen said.
Kalera’s goal is to get at least 50% of the power for the farm being built in Honolulu from on-site solar energy. Nissen said the company would like to use solar power at other farms, but the capital investment is steep and the payback period takes many years.
“This is an area where I think it would be helpful for the government to help provide some tax incentives to get to the right long-term answer,” Nissen said.
Vertical farms also use a lot of is water — over and over again. The water fed to the plants below the trays they sit on is recycled. The water entering the system is filtered and purified and purified each time it is recycled, Nissen said.
The company’s scientists estimate Kalera’s farms use about 95% less water than traditional farms.
Because the lettuce is grown in a clean room, it doesn’t need to be washed several times like produce grown outdoors, Nissen said. Workers pick the lettuce off trays and quality-control technicians inspect the heads for any signs of disease or abnormalities.
“If it doesn’t look perfect, we don’t want it go out the door,” said Katie Parks, a supervisor in quality assurance.
Parks and other employees report the condition of the plants by computer. Kalera gives produce rejected because of size or looks to local organizations. Parks said Kalera is talking to the Denver Zoo about taking the produce.
Another difference between vertical and traditional agriculture is the growing cycle.
“The growing cycle for the conventionally farmed product is to plant it in the spring, pull it out in the summer or fall,” Nissen said. “We get 13 growth cycles a year.”
At the start, workers use a machine to inject seeds into trays of peat moss. The trays are put in a humid area for about 48 hours so the seeds germinate. After a short time in the “nursery,” a machine transplants the seeds onto larger trays, which are then placed in the stacks under the lights for roughly a month.
Nissen said Kalera acquired Vindara, a company that develops seeds specifically for vertical farming.
“Most of the seeds in the world today are bred for resistance to weather and bugs and disease, not necessarily for flavor and texture and things that humans love,” Nissen said. “By growing indoors in a perfect climate, we’re able to create new varieties that are more nutritious, fresher and taste better.”
New varieties are developed through crossbreeding for specific traits, not through genetic modification, Nissen said. Further developments could include expanding into growing different kinds of berries.
Hannah Westergaard, a horticulturist and production manager at the Aurora plant, said being able to recycle water is important, especially as the climate in the region gets warmer and drier. Much of the lettuce Americans eat is grown in California and Arizona and much of the water used is lost, she said.
“There’s no perfect way to farm and I think there’s a time and a place for all kinds of farming,” Westergaard said. “But if we’re trying to make food more available to the consumer, cheaper for the consumer and still have the nutritional benefits that we need, we have to use every tool in the toolbox.”