Indoor farms - a fresh oasis in an urban desert

Producer Laura LeBlanc gives us a taste of the growing indoor farm movement

California is a fresh produce lover’s paradise. I know, because I am one and I’m a recent transplant from New York City to the San Francisco Bay Area. I literally feel like a kid in a candy store when I’m browsing any one of the dozens of farmers’ markets here. My husband and I love strolling through the booths, nibbling samples and eyeing voluptuous fruits and exotic veggies that tempt us to throw caution – and our budget - to the wind.

Even shopping at the grocery story, a chore I hated when I lived in Brooklyn, has become an adventure for the senses.  The produce section’s bounty inspires me to bring home something new and experiment in the kitchen.

The joy of easy access to farm fresh produce is one of the reasons I was intrigued by the budding indoor vertical farm industry.  Could towers of plants housed in industrial warehouses offer that same joy to city dwellers?  The answer is yes, says Robert Colangelo, founder of Green Sense Farms outside of Chicago.   He’s striving to get his leafy greens from warehouse farm to city table in 24 hours.

“That's our personal goal and our mission here at Green Sense Farms,” Colangelo told "TechKnow."  “We're located in Portage, Indiana, because we're on the periphery of a large population center.  We're located here because we're very close to distribution. One of our major clients, Whole Foods, is located 30 minutes away.”

Green Sense Farms is one of only a handful of commercial indoor farms in the United States.  Although it’s housed in a nondescript warehouse in an industrial part of town, it is also a feast for the senses with its columns of luscious greens bathed in a bright pink glow.  The glow is the result of thousands of red and blue LEDS  - one of the major innovations driving indoor or controlled environment agriculture. 

Photosynthesis occurs at red and blue wavelengths on the visible spectrum.

“These lights are engineered specifically for leafy greens, so that it maximizes that photo synthetic value without producing a lot of wasted energy,” said Colangelo.  “Plants only see the red and blue spectrum, and when you use a white light, a lot of that light is wasted, it produces excessive heat. Because its producing a larger spectrum of light, it needs more energy."

So the pretty pink light is energy efficient.  Bonus!  Let’s get back to the senses.

“This is a purple basil,” Colangelo said as he offered Crystal and me each a delicate purple bouquet. “I actually developed this for my wife. It’s called an edible bouquet. She doesn’t like flowers because they die, so we came up with this idea to package [basil] in a floral type of a bag. Smell how fragrant that is.”

TechKnow contributor Crystal Dilworth smelling Green Sense Farms microgreens

Needless to say, it smelled divine.  Of course the proof is in the taste.  According to Paul Hardej, founder of FarmedHere, the only indoor farm to be certified as organic by the USDA, plants grown indoors taste better.

“The plants have better nutrients, better growing conditions, and actually we can tweak the taste with lighting and with nutrients, with temperatures, with turning lights on and off at certain times of the day and with humidity. We have conducted a lot of blind tests with the best chefs in Chicago and we found our products to be a winner.”

Another sensual pleasure is that you can pop something in your mouth right from the grow bed – without worrying about washing off pesticides. That’s because plants are protected from pests by walls rather than chemicals.

“This is Thai basil,” Hardej said as he handed us each a leaf to sample. “It has got a little different flavor. It’s my favorite actually.”

Thai basil has a bit of a spicy kick to it, compared to sweet basil, with a subtle anise-like quality. Who knew there were so many types of basil in the world!  By the way, have I mentioned how much I love my job?

Not too long after we shot this story, my husband surprised me with a lovely bouquet fresh from a farmer’s market – a bouquet of Thai basil.   He was thinking of making eggplant Parmesan, but I wanted this herb to be the star of the show and that meant pesto! Before he could say, “we don’t have pine nuts,” I was out the door, racing to the grocery store to pick up the missing ingredients.  A half hour later we were feasting on some of the most outrageously crazy good pesto I’ve ever tasted.  If you like pesto, you’ve got to try making it with Thai basil.  And if you live near Chicago, I know a couple of local industrial warehouses that grow it fresh year round.

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