Inside the change: How Hamilton’s 80 Acres works on the front lines of farming tech

He’s not knocking lifelong farmers, but Mike Zelkind, CEO and co-founder of 80 Acres Farms, says the 20-something growers working for him in some ways have the experience of 5o-year-old traditional farmers.

That’s because they grow crops every month of the year, and may grow 17 crop cycles in a year, instead of one or two, because in the completely enclosed indoor growing environments, there are no off seasons to slow the crops down.

Using video monitors and other devices, they can see how plants grow differently when the humidity drops by 3 percent, or temperatures are 1 degree higher.

And with crops growing in such rapid succession, “They’ll see all these little things that if you’re growing a crop now and you’re growing it again in a year, you’re not going to remember all that,” he said.

80 Acres, co-founded by Zelkind and Tisha Livingston, is at a technological frontier of completely enclosed indoor farming, where pesticides are not needed or used, where adjustable LED light replaces the sun, and things like temperatures are completely controlled. Universities all over are studying various aspects of what 80 Acres and other companies are doing.

Meanwhile, 80 Acres is raising “fireworks tomatoes” and other crops that are very flavorful — the kind you buy at a roadside farm stand on a good day. And does so even through Ohio winters.

“We’re learning every day with this. That’s the fun part of the job. That’s what attracts the Timmys, the Megans, the Haleys,” he said, naming three Hamilton employees, “because this is how they think. They grew up with video games, playing with joy sticks.”

He and his workers don’t compete against Ohio farmers: They don’t grow things that nearby farms are producing in-season. In fact, Zelkind says the company employees some farmers during their off-seasons, and works with farmers to help them better market their products and better get their fruits and vegetables into stores more profitably.

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With the fruits and other crops 80 Acres grows in Hamilton and elsewhere, water use is way less than is needed outdoors. Where lettuce or leafy greens might use 650,000 gallons for certain production outdoors, they can use less than 20,000, he said.

About 90 percent of the water plants drink in through their roots they respire into the environment. The containers surrounding each 80 Acres “growing zone” recapture that evaporated water and condense it. It is run through ultraviolet filters and other systems, the nutrients in the water are measured and supplemented with nutrients that the plants consumed.

“We can show you on tomatoes where our yields are 2-3 times what any greenhouse will get you,” said Zelkind, who has decades in the food-growing industry, as does his co-founder, Tisha Livingston, company co-founder and CEO of sister company Infinite Acres, based in the Netherlands.

80 Acres, which last year decided to locate its headquarters on the 7th floor of Hamilton’s city building, has about 130 employees nationwide and more than 40 in Hamilton.

The company’s growers mix the art of experimentation with the science of indoor agriculture. In one artistic twist, its growers strategically stress their plants to stir different flavors.

When growing things like tomatoes or grapes outdoors, “there’s all these random stresses,” Zelkind said. “That’s why sometimes you have the most incredible, phenomenal crops.”

When it’s too wet, too dry, too sunny or too cold, plants naturally create phytochemicals and secondary metabolites as defense mechanism, which make them more healthy for people to eat, and also add flavors.

“We can get a grape to fruit in eight months, instead of three years,” he said. “We do that in Arkansas.”

Indoor growers also could replicate the grape-growing conditions of France, down to the fabled Mistral winds that many believe improve grapes.

“If I know what you want the wind to be, and if I know what nutrients you want, then we can duplicate it completely,” he said. “Absolutely.”

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The company now operates six indoor “farms: in Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Cincinnati and two in Hamilton (on South Second Street and in a 10,000-square-foot research-and-development farm in the city’s Enterprise Park industrial park).

Next to that building, the company is building a $10-million-plus, 70,000-square-foot building that will take the best of the company’s other procedures to create a larger commercial-scale indoor farm.

Within five years, Zelkind hopes to have more than 20 indoor farms.

The company’s current “grow zones” have sometimes been in shipping containers that are used for cargo on ships and trains, because those canisters were sturdy, inexpensive, and could be retrofitted easily. Grow zones at the new Hamilton building, to open this year, will be larger. The increased production volume should allow the company to lower prices from organic levels to closer to prices for conventional crops.

Dennis Chrisman, vice president of Dayton-area Dorothy Lane Market gourmet stores, said 80 Acres has “some great combos that offer some great flavors, especially when they mix in some micro greens in their salad mixes. I think they’ve got powerful flavor.”

Customers especially “love the Queen City mix. For those that are regulars with them, I think that’s one of their best options,” he said.

Rather than choosing seeds, like far-away farmers must, that create plants that are durable during transportation, Zelkind asks his seed providers for those producing their best-tasting fruits, but that were too temperamental for the outdoors.

Chieri Kubota, a professor of controlled environment agriculture at Ohio State University, said a big advantage of 80 Acres’ approach on raising food for local markets is it reduces the supply chain between it and markets, eliminating fuel waste, transportation time and distribution costs.

Rather than California lettuce spending two weeks being shipped here, the kind grown in Hamilton can be in stores within hours.

Rebecca Haders, the company’s vice president for marketing and creative, said it is worth it for customers to pay more for such products, because, “some of our salads can last 21, 28 days if they’re in the right conditions. You’re giving the shelf life to the customer, versus the truck.”

80 Acres has been featured in such publications as Techweek, and in 2018 won the North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s leadership award for Manufacturing Excellence.

Although its completely-enclosed-agricultural systems can be expensive to create, limiting their ability to be used for many crops, such farming also has potential to reduce droughts and famines by putting farms inside cities and using far less water than traditional cultivation. There’s also no fertilizer runoff into rivers.

Tim Brodbeck, a 22-year-old grower from Norwood who has been with the company three years, said: “It’s coming to work with a purpose. I love coming to my job every day, and every day is just another step toward feeding the world and feeding the people who don’t have the access to this food.”

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