Micro farm, macro impact

Features - Cover Story

Micro Farms in Nappanee, Indiana, hopes to revolutionize food production with its patented hydroponic system.

From left to right: Nick Graber, Steve Kiefer and Dion Graber

Nestled in the heartland of northern Indiana’s Amish country sits a shimmering glass greenhouse where fresh produce is grown, 365 days a year, without any pesticides or herbicides. Although the facility occupies a mere quarter of an acre, the owners of Micro Farms hope to revolutionize global food production with their innovations.

“Our big-picture goal for Micro Farms is to develop technology and growing systems to provide wholesome food to people globally,” says Loren Graber, who established the hydroponic greenhouse about five years ago.

“There are too many people who go to bed hungry,” adds Dion Graber, Loren’s son and head grower. “With all the technology and resources available, we should be able to feed them.”

Building on a long farming history, the Graber family has been producing food on this property for generations. Back in the ’80s, before Dion was born, Loren ran the family’s corn, soybean and dairy farm in Nappanee, Indiana. One day, he jokingly mentioned to the farm’s agronomist, Steve Kiefer, that he would start a greenhouse operation someday.

But then, soon after Dion was born, milk prices plummeted — forcing Loren to find work in another field. At the time, he didn’t realize that his new job in vinyl fencing would inspire the innovation to bring his greenhouse to life.

“Since he was in the vinyl business and he has PVC connections, vertical farming was right up his alley,” Dion says. “He’s always been an inventor at heart, and he has multiple patents. He just loves thinking outside the box and trying to come up with new things that are more efficient.”

Leveraging his inventive curiosity, his knowledge of vinyl and his drive to make traditional agriculture more efficient, Loren designed and patented his own vertical hydroponic/aeroponic tubes. He asked Kiefer to team up with him again, and they established Micro Farms in late 2013 with the dream of farming differently. Dion jumped onboard as head grower, and several years later, his younger brother Nick joined the family business to execute their father’s dream.

Lettuce growing at Micro Farms

“Vertical” integration

Loren considered using traditional, single-layer hydroponic systems that used floating rafts — deep water culture (DWC) — or the nutrient film technique (NFT), where nutrient-rich water circulates past the bare roots of plants in enclosed channels. But these horizontal layouts required too much space — pointing him toward vertical farming instead.

“You get so much more product per square foot when you grow vertically,” Dion says. “We have 320 tubes in a 4,000-square-foot area, and we can fit 46,823 plants in that 4,000 square feet. That’s roughly 10 plants per square foot.”

Micro Farms’ “Verti Tubes” are 12 feet tall and eight inches in diameter. Loren’s patented design features removable growing cups and trays that pop out of the tube for cleaner, easier harvesting. Prongs in each cup hold a foam cube in place to support the plant’s roots, and a small groove in the bottom of each cup channels water down as it trickles through the tube.

“The biggest thing that separates us when it comes to our Verti Tubes is the removable cup,” Dion says. “Most of them are molded in and you can’t take them out, so our design is better for cleaning purposes. It’s easier to harvest your plants, because if the roots are too long, they’ll get caught when you try to pull them out.”

The foam cubes can be removed with the roots still intact, allowing Micro Farms to harvest and sell living lettuce with a shelf-life of at least two weeks — leaving minimal cleanup behind.

Micro Farms’ Verti Tube Home Growing System

Finding the right mix

The Grabers broke ground in fall 2012, and then a team of builders from Rough Brothers constructed the Venlo greenhouse in 2013. The glass structure contains a 3,000-square-foot head house for seed-starting, a 4,000-square-foot space filled with Verti Tubes, and another 4,000-square-foot space for vertical vine crops.

Dion didn’t have any experience with hydroponics, so he and Kiefer attended the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona for a “quick crash course” that packed “six months’ worth of college courses into five days, and then another four months in two days,” he says. “That’s where my knowledge started, but at least 80 percent of my growing knowledge is just hands-on.”

When Dion started growing, he experimented with 23 varieties of leafy greens that he seeded weekly. Through trials, he whittled that collection down to 10 varieties, based on what grew and sold best.

The front half of the greenhouse is dedicated to leafy greens like butterhead and oakleaf lettuce, kale and pak choi grown in Graber’s hydroponic/aeroponic Verti Tubes. In the back half, vine crops like tomatoes, red bell peppers and snacker cucumbers are strung up toward the ceiling from hydroponic Bato buckets below — which are filled with recycled glass Growstone that can be rinsed and reused.

Dion and Nick continue to explore new varieties together — switching up greens in the summer to include basil and other heat-loving plants. They’re even trying strawberries in the Verti Tubes.

“We’re constantly experimenting,” Dion says.

Micro Farms grows tomatoes in addition to its Verti Tube-grown lettuce.
Photo: Brooke Bilyj

Watering the natural way

In addition to Loren’s innovation, the design of the greenhouse also drives efficiency at Micro Farms.

For example, each peak of the Venlo greenhouse roof has a vent on each side. “Whichever way the wind blows, the opposite side opens, so you don’t have a dramatic change in temperature,” Dion explains. “And then every valley has a gutter where we collect rainwater, which is stored in a 25,000-gallon tank under the floor of the headhouse.”

The roof of the warehouse next door also collects rainwater to supplement the operation. They have access to well water, if needed, but they rarely need to tap into that supply.

“The plants just respond better to rainwater,” says Dion, who also uses an O2 Grow system to “supercharge” the water with dissolved oxygen. “We’re trying to imitate exactly what a plant would get out in the ground, but with no soil.”

To that end, Kiefer formulated a mix of granular fertilizers mined from the ground — including Epsom salt, potash, potassium nitrate, monopotassium phosphate and calcium nitrate — that’s added to the water.

Building on a long farming history, the Graber family has been producing food in Indiana for generations.
Photo: Brooke Bilyj

Bugging out for pest control

To keep greenhouse insects in check, Dion and Kiefer rely on beneficial bugs to provide biological pest control at Micro Farms.

“We try to keep our population up, so when pests come, we’re ready for them,” Dion says. “Pests seem to multiply quicker than your beneficial bugs, so we’re constantly ordering them.”

Dion regularly releases parasitic wasps to control pesky aphids. Meanwhile, small sachets of swirski mites hang from the plants, inviting the tiny predators to go after the eggs of thrips that can threaten crops. Beneficial insects are released once or twice a month, negating the need for sprays.

“One thing that separates us is that we do not spray any pesticides or herbicides on our plants,” Dion says. “We don’t even have to rinse our produce after harvesting, because nothing was sprayed on it.”

Ronda Kuhns, greenhouse worker at Micro Farms, harvests lettuce from its Verti Tubes.

Harvesting fresh for market

Using scissor lifts to access crops all along the 12-foot-tall tubes, Micro Farms employees harvest produce daily. While some is sold fresh to local restaurants and retail customers, Micro Farms also sells produce through an online farmers market called Market Wagon.

Founded by a fellow former dairy farmer, the online platform allows customers throughout the state to order locally grown or handmade products from various vendors, who get to set their prices and availability weekly. Then, orders are either delivered directly to consumers’ doorsteps or to local pickup points.

There are too many people who go to bed hungry. With all the technology and resources available, we should be able to feed them. — Dion Graber

Every Thursday morning, Dion drives a truckload of produce to the Market Wagon hub in Indianapolis, two hours south of Micro Farms. On the way home, he swings by another hub in LaPorte, an hour west. At each hub, he distributes orders into customers’ bags, which are delivered after every vendor drops off their goods.

Market Wagon extends Micro Farms’ reach across the northern half of Indiana. But word travels fast in the small, rural town of Nappanee — and local consumers started asking how they could get fresh hydroponic produce, too. So last November, Micro Farms began selling to the public on Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon.

“At 9, you’ll see half a dozen buggies and a dozen cars in the parking lot,” Dion says. “Local people have responded very well to our products.”

Photo: Brooke Bilyj

Looking to the future

The Graber family is eager to share their hydroponic innovations with other growers. The first phase of this long-term plan is their home growing unit, which is slated to hit the retail market later this year.

A smaller version of their greenhouse Verti Tubes, the home hydroponic units, are mounted on a rolling cart that can be wheeled outside. Or, the unit can sit in a kitchen, using an optional LED strip and rotating function to provide sufficient light inside. The home unit features Loren’s patented removable cups and trays, allowing consumers to hydroponically grow 24 plants with minimal mess or maintenance.

Looking even further into the future, the Grabers’ dream of improving food production around the world by providing greenhouse supplies, resources and knowledge to communities in underserved nations like Haiti and Africa, where they’ve been involved in mission work.

“We want to teach other people how to grow. Ultimately, our big goal is to feed the hungry by educating them and setting them up for success,” Dion says. “Because our tubes maximize product per square foot, we think it could definitely make a difference.”

Brooke is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.