Innovative Hamilton company 80 Acres Farms impresses Ohio agriculture leader

State Assistant Director of Agriculture Tim Derickson launched Ohio Agriculture Week on Monday in a surprising location: inside an industrial park building within Hamilton’s city limits, where he saw a future of farming.

At the 80 Acres Farms building, Derickson and others watched as a powerful orange-and-blue robotic arm lifted large trays of plants from inside climate-controlled containers into a bin on rollers as part of one of the world’s most high-tech agricultural operations, all located indoors.

“When I think of a farm, a building like this does not come to mind,” said Derickson, of Hanover Twp., whose family had a multiple-generation tradition of dairy farming.

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Derickson recalls when 17 families in Butler County in the 1980s owned dairy farms. Now the number is a small fraction of that, he said.

For many of the dairy farms, “It simply became a thing where it’s just not profitable, and you work an awful lot,” Derickson said.

“It’s a gamble every year,” Derickson said. Among other things, “You’ve got to hope and pray for weather to cooperate.”

That isn’t the case inside several 80 Acres locations across the country, where tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce, grapes and culinary herbs, among many other crops, can be grown even when there’s a foot of snow outside.

80 Acres is constructing a 70,000-square-foot building in Hamilton Enterprise Park, next to the existing research facility Derickson toured. That building will be able to produce between 1.5 million and 2 million pounds of crops a year — equal to production from 100 acres of farmland.

80 Acres CEO and co-founder Mike Zelkind said his crops taste better and are fresher than competitors. With strawberries the company grows elsewhere, “I bite into it, you guys would all smell it,” because it’s so juicy and full of flavor, he said.

One thing 80 Acres is not trying to do is compete with local farmers, Zelkind emphasized. It does not grow things that area farmers are raising during their growing seasons.

The company during 2019 decided to locate its headquarters in Hamilton, inside the city-government building.

Outdoors across Butler County, 41.5 percent of the county’s total land is used in farming — mainly as cropland, with some pastureland and woodland agricultural uses.

In 2017, the last time an agricultural census was taken, 123,916 acres in the county were dedicated to farming. That was down 12.8 percent from 142,128 in 1997, largely because of housing subdivisions and other developments making use of what was farmland, Kif Hurlbut of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Great Lakes Regional Office, and Derickson, said.

By far, soybeans and corn are Butler County’s largest cash crops, earning $18.7 million and $16.5 million, respectively, in 2017. Behind them were hogs and pigs, at $6.1 million; and cattle and calves, at just under $6 million; nurseries and greenhouses, $2.9 million, and milk at $1 million.

“Technology enables a completely different form of agriculture,” Zelkind told Derickson and others during a tour of one of two company growing operations in Hamilton.

They are pesticide-free operations where people like grower supervisor Tim Brodbeck, 22, control the amount of light, water and nutrients going to plants within various “grow zones” within shipping-container-sized boxes.

The company prides itself on environmentally friendly practices, such as recycling of water and the nutrients it contains.

Controlling all aspects of growing, the company can produce crops with “much higher quality, much better carbon footprint, much cleaner product — the nutritional value is unparalleled,” Zelkind said.

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