Cheaper LED lights may make locally grown shine

06/06/2014 10:07:00 AM
Chuck Robinson

Chuck Robinson, assistant copy chiefChuck Robinson, assistant copy chiefBehold the pink glow of LED lights over a table of plants.

We have a couple of LED fixtures over some house plants at home, but only a couple because they are still a little expensive.

We bought them from a friend who grows orchids to sell to area floral shops, garden centers and garden enthusiasts. He used to grow his orchids in a glass greenhouse but an early spring hailstorm many years ago wiped out his crop.

None of his tropical crops survived. He had to change his business plan, and the solution was to build his operation in a corner of one of the caves in the Kansas City area.

Kansas City is blessed with thousands of acres of underground warehouse area, a byproduct of limestone quarrying.

For the orchid-growing operation, the move underground gave him a place where temperatures are cool but never freezing and impervious to hail, ice storms, severely cold weather or even cloudy days.

Occasionally the power goes out, but the orchids can survive a day or two in the dark without a problem, but not even a few minutes of freezing temperatures.

He has mostly sodium-vapor lights but is replacing them slowly with LED. His experience is that the plants do better with the LED lights, and if he needs to get plants to bloom at key orchid-selling times such as Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day he puts them under the LED lights.

It is always amazing to walk into his corner of the cave and see tables upon tables of orchids. It looks futuristic to me. I wonder why others haven’t picked up on this idea.

Maybe they will. An article in the May 17-23 issue of The Economist tells about an vegetable production facility in an Indiana warehouse operated by Portage, Ind.-based Green Sense Farms.

Lettuce, kale, basil and chives grow “22 hours a day, 365 days a year in 25-foot towers, untouched by pests and bathed in alien pink light.”

The increasing affordability of LED lights has been a key factor in the development of the Green Sense Farms operation.

The article mentions New York-based BrightFarms as another high-tech grower working the locavore trend by making deals with retailers across the country to build greenhouse operations to provide locally grown produce.

They have cut deals with McCaffrey’s, A&P, Homeland, Supervalu/Cub Foods, Schnucks, Ahold/Giant and Roundy’s/Mariano’s, and they have promised an operation in Kansas City.

“We will be making an announcement shortly about our Kansas City retail partner,” says Toby Tiktinsky, director of business development.

Mr. Tiktinsky, I know you have been working with economic development people on a site near the Missouri River, but you really should consider the caves.

“This form of farming could become widespread for leafy greens and other high-value crops,” suggests the writer of The Economist article.

I think the larger operations in Leamington, Ontario, are showing us it really can be done. Also, more tomatoes and other produce items are being grown in Mexican greenhouses.

Once upon a time a year-round supply of fresh, locally grown produce seemed impossible in places where residents contend with cold winters. Now, it looks possible. I wonder what would it take for local production to undercut the bigger, international operations.

Maybe cheaper, energy efficient LED lights are part of the answer.

crobinson@thepacker.com

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