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August 17, 2013

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By Andrea

It’s a blurred day in aboriginal October and I’m ambit my busy Jeep Wrangler about a bewilderment of automatic barrio in Hamilton, Ohio. Hamilton is a baby burghal 30 afar arctic of Cincinnati with a citizenry of aloof over 62,000 people. Like abundant of Ohio, agronomics is important here.

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I’m on my way to a acreage alleged 80 Acres, but it isn’t the sprawling midwestern aureate acreage you’re picturing in your mind. This tech-centric acreage is indoors, housed actually in a characterless 10,000-square-foot warehouse. 

You can’t acquaint from the outside, but this is a alive aftermath acreage that has activated over 100 varieties of abounding greens.

Food and agronomics are the top contributors to Ohio’s economy. There are about 78,000 farms in Ohio, putting it abreast the top of every account baronial US states by cardinal of farms. Its bigger crops are soybeans, blah and wheat.

But US agronomics is in trouble. There are almost 2 actor farms in the country advance above 900 actor acreage and they acceptable a absolute of $389 billion in sales in 2017, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, appear in April 2019. All three of those numbers are lower than they were bristles years ago. There are beneath farms, there’s beneath acreage committed to agronomics and the actual farms are authoritative beneath money.

There are a lot of affidavit for these declines, from bottomward article prices, to altitude change and a barter war with China. There’s additionally a growing trend of above farms authoritative the majority of the profits. Beneath than four percent of US farms fabricated added than two thirds of agronomics sales in 2017.

80 Acreage Farms doesn’t aloof appetite to accomplish fresh, bounded aftermath for Cincinnati and adjoining areas; it wants to actually analysis the aliment arrangement in the US. 

“We absitively that the [food] industry was actually burst and that it had to be anchored from within. Farmers are disturbing and they don’t appetite their kids to be in farming,” 80 Acreage CEO Mike Zelkind explains as we watch a apprentice called “Sam” expertly action containers of abounding greens about a alternation of ample aircraft containers central the Hamilton warehouse. 

I’m actuality to see how 80 Acreage is alteration agronomics for this bend of Ohio — and how its sister company, Infinite Acres, is affairs its acceptable technology to added farms with an ultimate ambition of “feeding the world.”

Zelkind and Tisha Livingston, the admiral of 80 Acreage and CEO of Infinite Acres, came up with the abstraction for their acreage in 2015. Back then, “controlled-environment agriculture” — added frequently accepted as calm or vertical agronomics — was a almost new industry. Calm agronomics is a blazon of climate-controlled agronomics that about relies on bogus lights and added technology to abound crops indoors.  

Zelkind has a lot of account for aboriginal calm agronomics pioneers, but he says there’s one affair they don’t accept that sets 80 Acreage Farms apart: He and Livingston accept over 50 years of accumulated acquaintance in the aliment industry. 

Zelkind formed for General Mills from 1991-1996. He afterwards transitioned to VP and SVP roles at ConAgra Foods, Bumble Bee Foods and AdvancePierre Foods. He was the CEO of Sager Creek Vegetable Aggregation afore he and Livingston co-founded 80 Acres.

Livingston captivated assorted roles at Pierre Foods and AdvancePierre Foods from 1995-2014, afore acceptable a VP and again COO at Sager Creek Vegetable Company. 

Mike Zelkind

The duo witnessed immediate the systemic problems with the aliment industry for decades. Zelkind says three things charge to appear for any long-lasting, absolute change to booty place: We charge to abound things differently, change the accumulation alternation and administration channels and commodity differently. 

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For 80 Acreage Farms, “growing things differently” translates to calm farming. 

Indoor farms can abound aftermath afterwards pesticides, year-round. That anon negates apropos about any of the constructed or accustomed pesticides acclimated in bartering and amoebic agronomical assembly and the inherent seasonality of acceptable alfresco farming, as able-bodied as weather-related issues due to altitude change such as droughts and floods. 

Mike Zelkind and his business partner, Tisha Livingston, angle in advanced of Sam the apprentice central their Hamilton, Ohio farm.

“Even if you abound it differently, you can’t stick it on some burst accumulation chain,” Zelkind adds. Tomatoes and strawberries are bred for busline — and aliment in the US campaign at atomic 2,000 afar on boilerplate to get from the acreage to your grocery abundance shelf, he explains. 

Tomatoes and strawberries are accurately bred to accept thicker banknote and they’re best from farms afore they’re accomplished — aloof so they will survive the 2,000 adventure to your town. Back you agency in the biking time, the shelf activity of aftermath is decidedly lower than it would’ve been if it were best at aiguille accomplishment and beatific to a bounded store. 

80 Acreage puts its farms abreast the aliment it serves and currently has six actually operational facilities. There’s one in Alabama, one in Arctic Carolina, two in Arkansas and two in Ohio, including the one I’m visiting today. 

The name 80 Acreage comes from their added Ohio farm, which is amid on a division acreage of acreage and grows the agnate of 80 acreage account of crops.

The Ohio farms accumulation bounded grocery aliment including Kroger, Whole Foods, Jungle Jim’s and Dorothy Lane Bazaar (a Dayton, Ohio-based abundance that additionally happens to accomplish the best brownies I’ve anytime tasted). 

80 Acreage has a committed aftermath breadth in a city Cincinnati Kroger.

The final hurdle for 80 Acreage is how to commodity their food, which they amalgamation locally in-house. For this, they balloon about the tech powering 80 Acreage and angular on the taste. “We are sampling in the abundance aggressively because already you aftertaste it, you know,” says Rebecca Haders, carnality admiral of artistic and business at 80 Acres, who’s tagging forth with us today. 

Of course, the tech actually doesn’t amount if the aftermath doesn’t aftertaste acceptable — but Zelkind, Livingston and Haders are unanimous: You actually *can* aftertaste the aberration amid archetypal grocery abundance aftermath and aftermath from 80 Acreage Farms. 

I bought a carton of their “Fireworks Tomatoes” at a Kroger in city Cincinnati and they were right; they were delicious. They tasted bigger than accepted grocery abundance tomatoes, but on-par with the freshest, best aged aftermath at your bounded farmers market. 

One analysis is the price. The 9-ounce carton of 80 Acreage blooming tomatoes amount me $3.99. Kroger-brand accepted blooming tomatoes appear in a 10-ounce carton and amount $2.49; Kroger’s Simple-Truth-brand blooming tomatoes amount $2.99 for a 10-ounce carton. Alike Whole Foods, a cast accepted for its college pricing, sells packaged tomatoes for beneath than 80 Acres.

While 80 Acres’ tomatoes were better, I wouldn’t appetite to absorb over $1 added on them anniversary time I went to the store. I asked 80 Acreage why budget-conscious barter — or any customers, actually — should buy their aftermath back it costs more. Haders tells me the banker sets the price, not 80 Acres.

“We know, based on chump feedback, that the chump awful ethics our constant flavor, actually pesticide-free, local, aloof picked-fresh tomatoes.  Appraisement is at par today with local, organic, but with efficiencies of scale, we intend to accompany prices bottomward afterwards compromising artefact quality, freshness, or flavor,” Haders adds. 

Their focus may be on taste, but the accuracy is, Zelkind and the blow of the aggregation affliction acutely about the tech. It’s the acute allotment that has enabled 80 Acreage Farms to abound so quickly. It’s additionally the key basic in analytic the challenges associated with afterlight the aliment industry.

80 Acreage “Fireworks Tomatoes” are declared on the packaging as “an admission of flavor.”

“This ability is affectionate of top secret,” Zelkind says as we angle in advanced of ten ample aircraft containers. “Everything in actuality is proprietary.” I’m the aboriginal anchorman to see it, I learn, and Zelkind, Livingston and Haders allocution about the technology actuality in hushed, aflame tones. While added calm farms await on tech, 80 Acreage says it has taken a added holistic bartering admission with fully-automated robots loading aftermath for aircraft and computer systems to advice adviser the crops and administer their lighting schedule.

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The aggregation has spent bristles years on accelerated balloon and absurdity to body this farm. They’ve brought in tech from added companies and additionally experimented by architecture their own to get as abutting as they can to an “optimal” calm farm. Anniversary new acreage they body allowances from the things they abstruse the aftermost time about — and this ability in Hamilton is their newest and best high-tech farm.

“We’re agitated and we’re afraid and we’ve gotten added than anybody abroad we know. And we’re actually nowhere. We apperceive that this won’t cut it, and this is yesterday. We’re alive on tomorrow,” Zelkind explains. 

80 Acres’ Hamilton acreage has 10 aircraft containers that admeasurement 40 anxiety long, eight anxiety advanced and eight anxiety tall. Anniversary aircraft alembic has amid four to six levels and can board almost 4,000 plants. If every aircraft alembic is abounding to capacity, that’s 40,000 plants total. This ability focuses on lettuces and added abounding greens.

There’s a acumen why 80 Acreage and added calm farms focus on these types of crops, explains Erik Runkle, assistant of agronomics at Michigan State University. Barter appetite them year-round, admitting melancholia availability — and abounding greens are about transported continued distances, admitting actuality perishable. Their comestible agreeable can additionally abatement during shipping. 

Then the catechism becomes: How economically applicable is calm agronomics really? In short, we don’t absolutely apperceive yet, Runkle tells me. He and colleagues from Michigan State and added universities received a admission from the USDA (the US Department of Agriculture) to abstraction this exact thing, but alike afterwards the four-year study, Runkle doesn’t apprehend the acknowledgment to be a simple “yes” or “no.”

Commercial calm agronomics in the US got started about 8-10 years ago, Runkle explains. He estimates that beneath than 1% of US aftermath agronomics comes from calm agronomics today. Best of the aboriginal companies accept gone out of business. Some acclaimed pioneers, like New Jersey’s AeroFarms, are still around. 

“Indoor agronomics is consistently activity to be abundant added big-ticket than annihilation developed in a field,” Runkle adds. He doesn’t apprehend calm agronomics to alter acceptable agronomics anytime anon — or conceivably ever. But he does see it as a abeyant band-aid in places breadth baptize is a limitation and acreage irrigation is either unrealistic or impossible. 

Fortunately, some abstruse advancements accept bargain the amount of calm farming, authoritative at atomic a little added applicable today than it would’ve been a decade ago. 

Ten modular “grow zones” are ample central their warehouse. During my visit, the aggregation was testing dozens of altered varieties of abounding greens. 

LED lights accept been one of the best cogent abstruse advancements that fabricated 80 Acreage possible. Older lights amount added money, acclimated added activity and fabricated the ambiance too hot for plants. Now, with LEDs, 80 Acreage has customizable, automatic lighting systems in abode to simulate aurora with altered blush temperatures. They use beneath energy, absorb beneath money and the plants are happier too. 

This acreage additionally relies on two robots, Sam and Barney, to handle best of the abundant lifting. The bots amount and unload pallets of plants from anniversary aircraft alembic on a set agenda — or manually, as needed. Added companies still appoint bodies to go up on scissor lifts and move these abundant bulb containers, Zelkind explains. 

There are cameras central anniversary container, too, so the aggregation can analysis in on their plants whenever they want. And 80 Acreage is developing apparatus acquirements to analyze irregularities — pests, blush deficiencies, variations in bulb sizes and abundant added — so that growers don’t accept to watch the plants 24/7. 

When the cameras acquisition an irregularity, it can be aggregate above the 80 Acreage aggregation to added bound analyze the abeyant affair and assignment against a solution. 

“We use all of that [technology] to abetment growers, not to alter growers,” Zelkind says. The AI tech today isn’t anywhere abreast breadth it would charge to be to booty over the job of a grower, but authoritative allowance for technology has absolutely afflicted how growers collaborate with plants. 80 Acreage alike offers its own training classes to advise advisers how to use their technologies. 

Controlled-environment agronomics is acceptable an added accustomed breadth of abstraction in agronomics departments at the University of Arizona, Cornell University, University of Nebraska and abounding added schools. 

Plant administrator Tim Brobbeck is so committed to the work, he sometimes sleeps at the Hamilton farm.

Tim Brobbeck started out as a agriculturalist at 80 Acreage three years ago. Now Brobbeck’s the bulb manager. Brobbeck says it can be catchy to barometer what’s activity on with a assertive bulb back you can’t ascend up and admission it easily. The cameras help, but it can still be difficult sometimes to acquaint what absolutely is happening. This tech acquirements ambit is absolutely what Livingston is focused on as the CEO of Infinite Acres. 

Infinite Acreage is 80 Acres’ tech company. As arch of Infinite Acres, Livingston works to accomplish the tech as acute as possible, in adjustment to abutment the growers and the blow of the aggregation here. But there’s addition ambition that goes way above the Hamilton acreage or alike 80 Acres’ bristles added farms: She wants to booty what they’ve abstruse about calm agronomics tech from 80 Acreage and advertise it to added farmers all over the world. 

80 Acreage is attainable to affairs its technology to added farms and allowance them run things or artlessly affairs the tech, training the absolute agents to use it and abrogation them to it, Livingston explains. They’re acquisitive to allotment what they apperceive about lighting, sensors, eyes systems, robots and automation with added farmers — and there’s a big appeal for it. 

These are “R&D” crops, abounding greens they’re testing out at the Hamilton farm. 

I ask the 80 Acreage aggregation what makes them special, how they managed to accumulate going. “Our full-blooded is grit,” Zelkind angelus in. Their failures, accompanying with their absolute ability of the aliment industry and 18-carat affection for the assignment accumulate them going. 

“We say, ‘fail fast and bargain with amazing insights,'” Livingston adds. It’s affectionate of their motto. They’ve fabricated a lot of mistakes, they readily admit. 

They’ve dead a lot of crops. They’ve had so abundant clamminess in abound zones that it actually rained, and dead everything. “We were in the action at one point breadth we were aloof continuing to berry alive that we were gonna annihilate all of the crops that we had,” Zelkind says with a chuckle. 

But they’ve appear this far and they’re bent to alternation a new bearing of farmers, aloof like Tim Brobbeck, to accomplish advantageous aftermath added attainable than anytime before. “I adulation the scalability of [80 Acres] and the abstraction that we can go out and maybe augment the apple someday,” says Brobbeck. That sounds appealing acceptable to me. 

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