Cultivate’18 attendees may have seen an indoor vertical farm — and some of the early-stage leafy crops visible on the outside of it — while getting a coffee or walking from the show floor this year. But the farm didn’t officially open until after the event ended. By the time Cultivate’19 rolls around, there’s a chance attendees will be able to tour the farm — which is outfitted with vertical racks and LED lights — and perhaps eat some of the food it produces.
Below, Daniel Palawasta, the general manager of food and beverage at Levy Restaurants, the operator of the Greater Columbus Convention Center’s food service, answers questions about how the farm came to be, how he learned to farm and what the farm is currently growing
Produce Grower: How did the farm become a reality?
Daniel Palawasta: When we came into Columbus, the thought was that we would take the traditional route of putting a garden on the roof. It’s a convention center — there’s plenty of space up there. And very quickly, what I determined is that if I put it on the roof, and I don’t tell anyone about it, nobody knows about it. And the whole value of the program is dependent on folks telling everyone that it’s out there. So, I said ‘What about bringing it inside the building? What can we do to make it more experiential for the everyday guest?’ We were going through a remodel, so I went back to ownership and asked if there was any space on the floor for a garden inside. The initial answer was no, but I continued to do the research anyway. I ended up presenting the Bright AgroTech model to the chairwoman of the board, said I needed 150 to 200 square feet, I want to make it visible to the guests and almost instantly she was onboard.
PG: You don’t have a horticulture background. How did you figure out how to grow in a vertical system?
DP: I’ve been in the food and beverage industry for 30 years now. I’d never grown anything in my life, either at home or professionally. No one on my team was really geared toward that. I spent many hours every day on YouTube, learning and watching videos and taking an interest in how the system works and what to grow and how to grow and when to grow. And I didn’t know anyone in this part of the business, so I had to research. I needed proven technology.
PG: What has grown well in the farm? And what does having local access mean for the business?
DP: Chives are doing well right now. The basil is doing great. Bok choy does well for us. Kale does incredibly well. From a financial standpoint, I can’t grow enough. It’s not scaleable for me when I’m feeding 10,000 people. But what it does do, especially for banquets and galas, is design a menu three or four months out in conjunction with our clients that uses those products in some way — like using basil in a cocktail or using fresh chives as a garnish. That’s where the real value is.