What was born a decade ago from an experimental crop of butter lettuce in 300 square feet of homemade poly greenhouse today has evolved into 3 acres of sleek and efficient production under glass.
Great Lakes Growers in Burton, Ohio, efficiently and perpetually plants, harvests and ships 12 different leafy green product mixes, as well as 14 fresh cut herb offerings, in a sleek, modern, Dutch-style double gutter connected greenhouse about 40 miles south of the Cleveland-Akron/Canton metropolitan area.
Head grower and founder John Bonner describes the operation as “semi-automated” when it comes to its level of technology adoption.“We’ll always be that way, we’re not going to go to full automation like you hear about with a lot of the vertical farms that are coming online more and more,” he says. “We like to be able to touch and see our plants up close.”
Expanding amid the pandemic
In 2020, GLG added on 10,000 square feet of climate-controlled packing space, as well 60,000 square feet of teched out row space for crop production. We are talking all the horticultural bells and whistles, with the latest in lighting (LED toplights for supplemental), automation (climate controllers), HVAC and nutrient film technology (NFT) irrigation and dosing, as well as sliding benches.
Previously, GLG added on 80,000 square feet of canopy space back in 2018, doubling its production capacity just in time for the local microgreens trend to take hold amongst consumers.
Over the last few years, the facility add-ons have backed impressive growth and continued diversification of GLG’s product offerings, according to Bonner. Today, the grower ships 25 unique retail items to regional grocery players like Heinen's and Giant Eagle, GLG also serves an extensive food service line for local restaurants and chefs that Bonner admits right off the bat has “taken a bit of a hit during the quarantine, although it’s opening up more now, thankfully.”
“We feel like we’ve finally uncovered most of the skeletons in the closet when it comes to growing these crops,” Bonner says. “We’ve faced and overcome a lot of the unique challenges to indoor growing – pests, diseases, climate issues, you name it – and now we’re pretty comfortable with where we are.”
Comfort for Bonner equates to pressing pause in the short-term on more facility expansions (the group has room at its current location to scale up to 5 acres under glass eventually) and focusing more on building out relevant and consumer attention grabbing product lines. Even with the temporary hit to its food service business, GLG is still enjoying very robust demand at retail.
“We’re focusing on organically growing these product lines, getting out into some of the surrounding Midwest states like Michigan, western New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, as well as other regions with our partners,” Bonner says, noting the various intricacies that must be managed when shipping a perishable product, as well as the rising expense of trucking out product.
Two somewhat recent developments in the CEA industry have made GLG’s commitment to expansion easier to execute, according to Bonner: the improved efficiency and lowered cost of new LED lighting technologies, and a greater commitment from seed breeders to hunt out phenotypes that work best for indoor production.Bonner started out with HPS lights, but after establishing a trial space in the greenhouses’ experimental range with LED toplighting fixtures from Philips, he was quickly convinced.
“We started seeing a 35% boost in production capacity, and just from a plant quality standpoint, the LEDs have really flattened out our production lines in the winter, because with the HPS lights we were seeing a major yield hit in the winter months,” Bonner says.. He also notes that the LEDs have even made the operation’s finished crops taste better.
Genetics-wise, he is excited to see the seed breeding companies focus more heavily on breeding plants with characteristics that are ideal for his type of growing style. Just a few years ago, that type of genetic diversity simply did not exist yet, and all of GLG’s lettuce crops are still grown from seed in seed trays, while vegetative cuttings are used for much of the CEA's fresh herb production.
“The focus from the seed companies to develop genetics for this market has really come full circle. Now, they’re breeding lines specifically for us,” Bonner explains. “They’re releasing new romaine cultivars with really vibrant colors, and new lettuce varieties with improved disease tolerance. It really does make this job a little bit easier.”
It bares mentioning that what Bonner and Co. at GLG are doing should not be considered, in any sense of the word, easy. Unlike his neighboring row crop farmers in Ohio’s ag-focused Geauga County, there are no crop insurance policies to cover indoor crop losses. And generally speaking, growing hydroponically at such a scale, is more difficult than growing in soil, since issues that arise in a hydroponic system will normally progress much faster than in container production.
Mistakes are bound to happen. Learning from those mistakes, and not repeating them, are steps one and two to carving out a sustainable standing in the CEA produce world, Bonner believes.
“There is no playbook out there on how to do this successfully,” he says. “I’ve made more mistakes than I care to admit, and no matter what you read or research, every situation is different. Are you a vertical farm? Are you low tech, or high tech and automated? Are you shipping to the East Coast, where retail prices are higher and transportation costs are a bit lower? Or are you sending your product around the Midwest, where it is a bit more spread out and shipping costs are more expensive? There are a lot of dynamics at play there.”