News & Politics » Miscellany

A Spinach Plant Grows in DeKalb

It produces 13 crops a year, 16 tons a month, with no sand, no bugs, and no pesticide residue. But the electricity bill is a killer.



You can find them in your salad at the Sierra Grill. You can find them in puffy plastic "Kitchen Harvest" packages in the Treasure Island store at Clark and Elm. They look like premium-priced spinach leaves--$2.29 for 4 ounces--but their growers see them as the tender emerald harbingers of a vegetable revolution.

Their story begins two hours west of the Loop, in a windowless white metal building just off the East-West Tollway. Here, in the shadow of the De Kalb water tower ("Technology-Education-Agriculture"), PhytoFarms of America grows 100 acres' worth of spinach on one acre of ground--without sunlight, rain, or soil. Neither bugs nor drought nor gloom of night prevent them from turning electricity into food, 13 harvests a year. "They're unique," says Pennsylvania consultant Maynard Bates, who has ten years' experience in the field. "They're probably the only firm doing total growout of produce in that way."

According to founder and president Noel Davis--writing in the October 1985 issue of Food Technology magazine--PhytoFarms represents the third stage in the evolution of farming. First came "natural-environment agriculture" (around 10,000 BC), then "modified-environment agriculture" (greenhouses, from as early as 100 AD), and now the climax: "controlled-environment agriculture" (1970s AD). Controlled-environment agriculture is to normal farming what Northbrook Court is to an open-air market. In Davis's words, "It achieves independence of climate and weather [and] . . . control over light, temperature, carbon dioxide, growing media, water, nutrients, and space." It has not, however, achieved independence of that universal growing medium, money.

Davis has been in this field, so to speak, longer than almost anybody. "I left gainful employment and went into business in the early 50s, building equipment for greenhouses," he says in a soft, engaging drawl. But greenhouses didn't hold his attention for long. "In rummaging around, I found that in the 1500s, the Dutch had just about everything we have today. In those very early greenhouses, they had shade cloths, roof vents, hot-air heating. Most of the advances since then have been refinements.

"Well, you can polish something only so much. [In controlled-environment agriculture,] we're in something with no refinements: everything we do opens a whole new door. If we can get close to it and make it float, the potential there is only on the up side."

Sales manager John Duback and I are standing in a wide concrete-floored hallway on the upper floor of PhytoFarms' building. Not far away, a worker hoses down pieces of growing apparatus; Duback warns me not to slip in the water puddled in spots on the smooth floor. The lighting is moderate and the colors are subdued factory tones; the scene seems almost black-and-white.

Then Duback hauls on a rope that runs through a pulley, raises an 18-foot-wide canvas shade on one side of the hallway--and reveals a dazzling, humid panorama of silver and green. Solid spinach stretches almost 50 yards into the distance, surrounded by reflecting shades and illuminated by an array of 1,000-watt bulbs hung four feet above the greenery.

Duback is not just a sales manager, he's an enthusiast who knows the copywriter phrases by heart. He plucks two sprigs of spinach and offers me one: "Look at that beautiful emerald-colored leaf. No bug damage on it. Even the stems are edible--they're young and tender, not woody like a field crop. There's less oxalic acid, so there's no bitter aftertaste"--largely because, with its optimum growing conditions, PhytoFarms can grow a crop of spinach in 28 days rather than the 42-day average outdoors.

This is the heart of the "phytofarm," a place which is neither a farm nor a greenhouse, but more like an ingenious growing machine. It even begins with a machine--in the planting room, where a vacuum-operated device picks up and plants 50,000 BB-sized spinach seeds a day. (The company also grows smaller amounts of lettuces and herbs, which are seeded by hand.) The seeds, once installed in small square plastic cups, spend a couple of days in "humidity cabinets"--head-high metal boxes with shelves, which superficially resemble the cabinets used to wheel cafeteria trays back and forth in institutional feeding places. Once germinated, they're moved across the hall to "starter bays," and after 8 to 12 days there, on into the main growing system for the final two weeks until packing and shipping.

Throughout, everything a normal vegetable grower gets from nature must be carefully considered, designed, and adjusted. For starters, the plants' roots feed on water, not soil. PhytoFarms takes clean De Kalb city water, deionizes it to remove traces of calcium, zinc, and iron, and adds 15 computer-monitored nutrients, mixed the way spinach likes them best. The plants slurp them up as the water flows down along the narrow, white aluminum-alloy troughs that hold the plants in rows. From big green tubes overhead, they get air with three times the usual amount of carbon dioxide.

Like factory-bred chickens, PhytoFarms' spinach plants never see daylight. They get "sunlight" from alternating blue (metal halide) and yellow (high-pressure sodium) 1000-watt light bulbs. The deionized water circulates around each light bulb and carries off the heat, which at four feet above the crop would otherwise shrivel the spinach fast. The outside of each bulb's "water jacket" is comfortable to the touch, unlike an unprotected 60-watt bulb.

Since electricity is about 25 percent of PhytoFarms' expenses, and any way to cut the cost is welcome, another computer makes sure the plants get their light when electricity is cheapest (off-peak). According to Noel Davis, theory has it that "pulsed" lighting might work as well as the steady illumination we're used to. "There's a body of information suggesting that the photoreceptors in a plant can be energized in a microsecond or so--and then they take about 1,000 times as long to utilize that energy. So if you could turn the lights off for that time--a microsecond on, a millisecond off--you could save a lot of energy. But nobody's come up with a way to do it yet. It would make this kind of growing cheaper than field growing."

Even space--especially space--is no longer a given, but another factor that PhytoFarms must manage. How do you harvest a solid bay of spinach, 18 feet wide and 141 feet long? One row at a time: what looks like one plot is actually the world's slowest-moving assembly line. The plants stand leaf-to-leaf, but they are not all the same age and don't mature at the same time. Spinach plants are placed in their troughs at one end of the bay at about 14 days of age; the troughs ride in long screws that slowly turn, bearing the rows of plants ever so slowly toward the far end. The threads on the screws start out one inch apart; as the plants grow, the distance between the threads increases. By the harvesting end of the bay, there are five inches between troughs instead of only one. At the same time, the slope of the troughs is increased slightly so that the incoming water can flow past the young plants' ever-thickening roots.

At the far end of the bay, the plants are removed from the troughs one by one, inspected, and packaged individually in air-sealed, pillowlike, transparent plastic bags. The spinach cannot grow, but still lives, as if in a terrarium, until you "harvest" it from your refrigerator (hence the brand name "Kitchen Harvest").

Is high-tech spinach better than the stuff that was harvested in an open field? This is the subject of a debate that might be livelier if hydroponic produce (both greenhouse- and PhytoFarms-grown) had a more substantial share of the market. Dean Bastounes of Capitol Produce estimates that indoor-grown leafy greens had no market impact until about five years ago, and even now, although "a lot is being sold, it's maybe 1 percent, or one-tenth of a percent of the [Chicago] market." (PhytoFarms grows roughly 16 tons of spinach a month, compared to the 4,000-6,000 tons sold monthly nationwide.)

Noel Davis sees his produce as simply a consistent version of the optimum produce all growers seek. "When a [field-grown] plant gets everything it needs throughout a whole growing season--which doesn't happen that often--it's just as good [as ours]. All we can do is increase the percentage of the crop that is of that quality, and do it a little quicker and more efficiently on a space basis." But not necessarily: Bastounes claims that hydroponic greens won't last as long once out of the case. Jeff Tomchek, executive chef of Sierra Grill, agrees, but says it's not a problem since he uses a case of PhytoFarms spinach every two to three days. Even Duback acknowledges that hydroponically grown herbs don't have quite the concentrated flavor of their field-grown cousins. "We don't handle hydroponic herbs," Tom Cornille of the wholesale firm George J. Cornille and Sons says flatly. "The flavor doesn't hold up" for the same reason the spinach is milder--the herbs haven't had as long before harvest to accumulate their spicy essential oils.

Still, the stuff does sell, and it's not cheap. At Jewel's Clark and Division store, PhytoFarms spinach recently sold for $1.39 for four ounces--while regular spinach was 98 cents a pound. A case of spinach for restaurant use runs $22, compared to $8 for field-grown. What makes that worthwhile? According to Tomchek, "There's no washing--just rip the roots out and you're ready to go. It saves labor and trouble."

And Duback insists it isn't price per pound he's selling, "It's yield, it's taste, it's convenience--in a busy society, to be able to have sand-free spinach in minutes, without having to scrub each leaf, free of insecticides and herbicides."

The real mystery is not so much why a premium-priced product will sell to premium customers, as why it is so little known to the public. You don't merchandise Dove Bars or Frango Mints or Harry-and-David mail-order fruits by keeping them secret. But who has heard of PhytoFarms' closed-environment farm? Or the ten acres of hydroponic greenhouses (probably the largest in the U.S., mostly in lettuce) run by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in downstate Decatur?

One suspects that marketing may not be the industry's strong point, and MIT-trained engineer Noel Davis certainly agrees. When he started out making equipment for greenhouses in the early 1950s, "There were 400 acres of vegetable-producing greenhouses in northern Ohio, around Cleveland. There probably aren't 50 left. Now if you asked them, they'd say labor costs, energy costs, and regulation of chemicals did them in. I'll agree those elements were part of it, but they didn't sell their product for what it was worth. They couldn't get the price. It was a shortcoming of marketing.

"I remember having lunch with some patent lawyers in Cleveland years ago--there in the center of the vegetable greenhouse industry of the country--and they were talking about how terrible hothouse tomatoes were in the winter, how they were all pulpy and had no flavor. Well, there aren't any hothouse tomatoes in those months! Long ago the growers realized they grew so slowly and required so much heat in those short winter days, that it just didn't pay to set them out. The tomatoes the lawyers were complaining about were being imported from Cuba, Mexico, the southwest--but the growers had never managed to get that message across."

This lack of communication may have become an industry tradition. Thirty-odd years later, Davis says he has yet to see anyone in the business do "what I would consider a professional job of marketing. I've seen ADM on TV, but on a program like Face the Nation, as something good for mankind. General Mills had quite a marketing plan, but they never put it into action.

"We've got produce in Jewel and Dominick's and Treasure Island, and it's moving pretty well. We've been on TV a number of times in Chicago as part of a news program. But that doesn't sell anything." Then why does John Duback have to spend his time educating distributors and retailers on a face-to-face basis, explaining the product at sales meetings? Where is PhytoFarms' sophisticated advertising campaign?

At the moment the company may not need one. Davis says, "We've gone from throwing product out because we couldn't get our price, to being so far behind we can't ever hope to catch up with orders." (Says Duback, "We had a call from somebody in Europe at the time Chernobyl hit. They were looking for more spinach, but we were sold out and couldn't provide it.") But even so, acknowledges Noel Davis, "We don't have the budget to do it right."

Why not? Because the money people tried it and didn't like it.

PhytoFarms would not exist today if it weren't for General Mills. Back in the 1950s, Noel Davis moved from greenhouse equipment into building closed chambers for plant-growth experiments--"people wanted them because they couldn't do the same experiment in February as in July" because of the change in seasons. He founded Environmental Growth Chambers Company of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, which remains active in its line of business. Davis kept on tinkering and building pilot projects and getting patents and writing handbooks, concluding by the early 1970s that "while a one-acre greenhouse could produce 10 times the lettuce yield of an acre of good California farm land, a one-acre plant factory could produce 10 times the yield of a good greenhouse."

General Mills bought the concept and the technology in 1973; after five more years of experiment, it erected its full-scale plant factory just south of De Kalb, which started producing in 1979--"just 100 years after Edison's invention of electric lighting," notes Davis.

Why De Kalb? Why place a factory intended to replace soil and climate in one of the three or four places on Planet Earth where the soil and climate are actually ideally suited to outdoor agriculture? According to John Duback, for much the same reason a lot of things are located in the midwest--convenience. The town was close to Chicago without being congested, handy to good highways, not far from Milwaukee (traditionally a popular test market), and--devotees of irony take a deep breath--"electricity was going to be cheap."

Duback tactfully attributes the extreme uncheapness of PhytoFarms' sine qua non to "inflation and the oil crisis," not to Commonwealth Edison's nuclear construction program. Davis says simply, "In 1978, when we were looking at the decision [to build], we were given an estimated [electricity] cost to run this place one-third of what it was when General Mills pulled out" in the early 1980s. While there are no plans to move, there are no plans to expand here either: says Davis, "This is the wrong place for another one." Almost anywhere else would be cheaper. (General Mills also expected that De Kalb's Northern Illinois University would provide a source of educated part-time help. "But," says Duback, "college kids on a sunny day turned out to have a greater need of a tan than of a paycheck.")

By 1982 General Mills decided that it couldn't make (enough) money manufacturing produce as if it were Cheerios. "It was based on the big corporate philosophy," reflects Duback. "They had 70 people working here, we get by with 45. They thought they couldn't get more than 80 cents per package--punched that in with the cost of electricity, and thought they would lose money." Elsewhere, Control Data in Saint Paul and Campbell in Pennsylvania have recently followed a similar route in and out of the hydroponic-produce business.

Maynard Bates, who used to work in research and management for General Mills, PhytoFarms, and Campbell, suspects that the technology "is not quite efficient enough to be economical for big companies. It's a high capital cost venture, and they want to see a minimum of 15 percent return on investment annually. Most vegetable systems today are barely at break even, and certainly none are over 10 percent. It's like farming--a highly capitalized operation that requires a level of skill and involvement that's very difficult for a corporation to bring to it."

Some observers, like Mike Read, who now works as a grower for Weyerhaeuser's Waterfield Farms in Virginia, think that the easiest way to cut electricity costs and make the enterprise sufficiently profitable is to go back to greenhouses and quit trying to produce year-round artificial sunlight. This would hold down costs, but it would leave the producer at the mercy of a cloudy week when the customers are clamoring for produce. Decatur's ADM is splitting the difference by adding lights to its greenhouse operation; unlike other large corporations, ADM also benefits from the free heat, free carbon dioxide, and cheap electricity passed on by its main corn-refining business next door.

ADM does produce some tomatoes and cucumbers, but most greenhouses and PhytoFarms specialize in leafy produce for a very good reason. "With salad vegetables," explains Mike Read, "you can sell everything you grow above ground. With a fruit or flower crop, you have to grow all the leaves and stems first, so your efficiency of energy conversion is less." And greens are a higher value crop than, say, corn or soybeans. Of course, the highest value crop grown by small entrepreneurs in closed environments is illegal. According to the spring issue of Whole Earth Review, Cannabis indica buds sell on the west coast for roughly 600 times the price per ounce of premium spinach. Cash flow like that would do wonders for the law-abiding practitioners of controlled-environment agriculture.

It's an old contradiction: Those with the big bucks want the return sooner and larger rather than later. Those with the new ideas make do with some peeling paint and improvisations, like the extra file storage in the men's room. "This building was all crystal-ball in the 70s," says Duback. "Now we know the corrections to make--it's overbuilt in some areas, underbuilt in others." Adds Davis, "We could raise our production 50 percent if we could do some of the things we know how to do"--primarily replacing lights and improving the cooling ("This hot weather really cuts our production").

"I'm fascinated," says John Duback, "by the idea that we need so little water"--20 percent of what a comparable field crop would soak up--"and that we could grow food in Antarctica with this system."

Antarctica, nothing. Davis has his eye on outer space--or at least on the moon. PhytoFarms is one of 11 corporate members of an industrial consortium associated with the NASA-funded Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics. According to Dr. Ray Bula, a senior scientist in the University of Wisconsin's College of Engineering and former director of research at PhytoFarms, WCSAR has a threefold program: developing robots to work in space; developing systems using plants for life-support in space; and--the point--figuring out how to mine potentially very valuable helium-3, an isotope found on the moon's surface (but not on earth) that could be used in a nuclear fusion reaction that produces no radioactivity.

The more time you spend in space, and the more people you send up, explains Bula, the harder it becomes to use "physiochemical life-support systems" in which astronauts breathe oxygen from hydrolyzing water and their exhaled carbon dioxide is chemically absorbed. When properly managed, plants can take up carbon dioxide and other human wastes, and turn them into pure oxygen, distilled water, and food, in a miniature artificial version of planet earth.In space, says Bula, "controlled-environment agriculture" takes on additional dimensions. Not only is there little or no gravity, but it becomes crucial not to let any air or water out. "Every ounce, every gram, is a precious thing." Davis says PhytoFarms' system is a lot closer to being workable on the moon, with reduced gravity, than it is in deep space with no gravity at all. "Plants will grow in zero gravity, but feeding them is a problem," because water won't stay "down" around the roots.

So the future of PhytoFarms' technology may not lie in the direction of providing mass-market iceberg lettuce at 29 cents a head, but in selling premium produce and in keeping helium miners alive on the moon. "Whatever is produced up there needs to be very high quality," says Bula, "so you're not dealing with lots of waste. But at least as important, you need a high level of productivity per unit volume. PhytoFarms is getting 100 times the field production. We look to that level to make this kind of thing work." The consortium might have a working ground unit in three to five years, he says, and "maybe by 2000 there will be a unit in space growing plants."

Back on earth, Noel Davis has plenty of ideas he could implement a lot sooner. "For instance, we've grown only with field varieties of plants. We selected the ones that grow best. But if we could have our own varieties, without all the defense mechanisms they need in the field but not in here, it would make a big difference.

"At Wisconsin, we're working with people dedicated to serious robotics. Another 25 percent of our cost is labor and rather tedious labor at that. There are possibilities there too.

"We have come through a long dry spell--keeping production going and finding a market for it. We've had our product out there four years, and earned the respect of the users, which was a long time coming. Yesterday was the biggest Thursday we've had since we've been here, both in the number of new orders and the dollar value of them. We won't be able to fill over 60 percent. The first thing I'd do is some of those rather obvious things--cooling, new lights--so we could fill a greater percentage.

"We made a list a while back of options--seven or eight of them had paybacks in months, not years. We know what to do. It's just getting in a position to do it."

Add a comment