Sally Herbert is an Air Force Reserve veteran who once served in Operation Desert Storm. She also owns and operates Altius, a vertical aeroponic farm in the heart of Denver.
Altius is unlike almost any farm you’ve ever seen.
From the outside, it looks like any other city block: tall buildings, crowded streets and kids on the playground. But beyond the urban exterior exists a lush, second story oasis bursting with sixteen varieties of local greens including lettuce, basil, arugula, rainbow chard, kale and more.
Amid a pinkish hue of LEDs mixed with winter sunlight, Herbert showed me around the 8,000-square-foot urban greenhouse. Along the way we talked about one of Colorado’s key agricultural issues: a growing lack of water.
Altius is one of the early farms in Colorado to tackle this issue head on by applying a vertical and soilless system using drip-based aeroponics. In this form of hydroponics, plants are placed in a series of vertical columns to maximize growth space, conserve water and optimize the growing cycle.
The result is a method that saves an estimated 95 to 97% water over conventional farming, all while producing crops year round in more efficient cycles.
Wandering around the lush, green stacks feels exactly like the sleek, modern take on small-scale farming that you’d expect. Plants are secured into the columns with a rockwool medium, and the roots are exposed inside the hollow tube. The pH balanced and nutrient-infused water is then pumped up from the ground basin and gravity dripped along the roots for maximal absorption. It’s then recollected at the base creating a closed loop water system.
But Altius isn’t the only urban greenery charting new territory. Nearby in Lakewood, another vertical farm is hiding in plain sight.
Tucked amid a series of warehouses off Highway 6, Infinite Harvest has roughly the same amount of square feet as Altius. Yet this farm design ditches sunlight altogether, creating a 17-foot high fully controlled cubic growing space. In total, the urban farm equates to about three quarters of an acre of conventional farm land, or about 35,000 square feet.
Touring this farm feels a bit like entering the Meow Wolf of agriculture; the two-story-high library-like stacks are lit by multicolored LEDs creating a totally immersive and almost psychedelic feel. Amid the plant rows lean ladders and lifts for staff to harvest the otherwise unreachable greens.
Director of Operations Jim Romano highlights the uniqueness of working at the farm, joking about how it’s become his Willy Wonka moment. Yet he’s very serious about the enhanced capacities of their growing space. “In here, it’s like creating the best day outside every day inside,” he says.
Romano is referring to the benefits of a fully controlled environment. This means having full control over the heat, humidity, light spectrum, water and nutrients, all of which enhance the growth process, and even improvements to plant nutrients and taste.
Like Altius, the vertical, soilless systems at Infinite Harvest also have immense water savings. Romano estimates the entire farm runs on the same amount of water a family of four uses per day, something wholly impossible in conventional farming. Plus, by moving inside, neither farm requires the use of pesticides or herbicides, and concerns such as water-borne diseases or crop loss are almost entirely removed. The local farms also deliver directly to customers, often on the same or next day, removing costly shipping and dramatically increasing taste and longevity.
Vertical farming is very much in its infancy. Right now, there’s no textbook to follow. That means it’s a lot of trial and error by entrepreneurs like Herbert and Romano to help pave the way.
In many ways, the learning curve is already paying off — literally.
Romano, who has worked at Infinite Harvest since the start of commercial operations, shared how initially they were packing out (farm lingo for the picked to planted ratio) at maybe 30%. Five years later, after optimizing systems, he estimates they operate at well over 85%, a significant boost to not only available crops but also profitability — a key to making these endeavors sustainable.
Other modern farms are already underway across the Front Range. The University of Colorado Boulder has a large, indoor vertical tower system that helps produce food for the dining hall. Another new large-scale commercial vertical farm is said to be under construction near Denver International Airport. Even in the few days of writing this column, a second high-tech hydroponic greenhouse by Gotham Greens was announced for Windsor, the first being near the Stanley Marketplace in 2020.
Watching these efforts makes me incredibly proud to call this state home. As tough as it will be for us to meet the challenges of the moment, we also have a tremendous opportunity to lead the way and maintain our agricultural pride. Vertical farming is one of the methods that can address our growing water shortage, and I, for one, can’t wait to taste what it looks like in the coming years.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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