80 Acres Farms is now producing tomatoes in downtown Hamilton. They purchased the former Miami Motor Car Co. building on S. 2nd Street in February 2017 and have renovated it to create an indoor farm facility. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Photo: Nick Graham
Photo: Nick Graham

Dilapidated Hamilton building transforms into an industry-changing grow facility

The vertical farming business is now reaping the benefits of two years of work it put into a formerly dilapidated historic building at 319 South 2nd Street in the city’s downtown.

While its automated facility on Enterprise Drive, which started operations earlier this year, intends to grow leafy vegetables, herbs and strawberries, the downtown Hamilton location targets the growth of vine crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

80 Acres Farms harvested its first crop of tomatoes in recent weeks in a space designed to be far more productive that its 12,000-square-foot Cincinnati location, something that was proof of concept, but isn’t at the scale it needs to be to “make a dent” in demand, according to Rebecca Haders, 80 Acres Farms’ vice president of creative and marketing.

While the Cincinnati location has room for one “grow zone” for tomatoes, the downtown Hamilton location has room for 15 such areas. That, Haders said, means the ability to grow and harvest thousands of pounds of tomatoes each week.

Head grower Robert Norris walks through rows of tomato plants at 80 Acres Farms that is now operating in downtown Hamilton. They purchased the former Miami Motor Car Co. building on S. 2nd Street in February 2017 and have renovated it to create an indoor farm facility. The special pink colored lighting is controlled by a timer for optimal growing conditions. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

“This is really our foray into commercialization,” Haders said during an exclusive first-look tour around the facility provided to this news outlet. “We could service a larger retailer at this point.”

80 Acres Farms’ Cincinnati location sells to Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield and Eastgate, Dorothy Lane Market’s three Dayton-area locations, Clifton Market in Cincinnati and Whole Foods Market locations in Cincinnati, Deerfield Twp. and Dayton. It also distributes to several restaurants, including Hamilton’s Coach House Tavern & Grille and Alexander’s Market & Deli, plus Loveland’s Tano Bistro, which is set to open a Hamilton location this summer.

With 80 Acres Farms now conducting the bulk of its operations in the city, a move of its headquarters there from the Cincinnati area is not far behind, Haders said. That relocation to Hamilton should occur by year’s end, she said.

“This is where the excitement is,” Haders said. “There’s been such a draw to come to Hamilton, and I think the leaders of the city have a great vision. They’re making it happen and creating a lot of excitement and getting the right people in to turn it around and we were excited to be a part of it.”

Haders said it also helps that 80 Acres Farms’ Hamilton employees enjoy working in Hamilton, where they can grab a coffee or lunch in its growing downtown.

“It’s such a great atmosphere and you can feel the energy,” she said.

80 Acres Farms is now producing tomatoes in downtown Hamilton. They purchased the former Miami Motor Car Co. building on S. 2nd Street in February 2017 and have renovated it to create an indoor farm facility. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Photo: Nick Graham

Transforming a historic building

Haders said when 80 Acres Farms co-founders Mike Zelkind and Tisha Livingston toured the building several years ago, “they fell in love with it,” leaving their respective corporate careers to start their brainchild.

Transforming the building, which was constructed in 1920 as the home of the Miami Motor Car Company, has taken two years.

“We wanted to really figure out what we needed from this building but it had a lot of work that needed to be done,” she said. “There were walls inside of walls inside of walls that we were tearing away.”

The building, which most recently served as a furniture store, also had to be sealed to make it a completely food-safe facility. Renovations also included deconstructing and cleaning the interior, redoing the plumbing and electrical and touching up much of its cosmetics.

80 Acres Farms also had the arduous task of having to clear three floors of furniture from the structure.

Tomatoes are being grown on the third floor, but not with the broad spectrum lighting contained in sunlight. Instead, there’s a red and blue lighting system that optimizes photosynthesis and allows the plants exactly what they need to produce the sugars that create phytochemicals and other beneficial plant compounds.

“That’s why you see that pink-purple light for indoor farming because you can grow under broad spectrum, but the plants don’t need all of those light spectrums,” she said.

The company continuously tests the water that is recycled through its irrigation system, relying on state-of-the-art sensors to identify what is or isn’t needed.

“We use a third-party lab to keep us on par on what’s in our water, so you know exactly the nutrient content,” she said. “There’s a lot of fluoride in Cincinnati water, so we have to take out that fluoride. Hamilton water is amazing.”

80 Acres Farms, which uses 97 percent less water than a traditional farm, also opted to locate the bulk of its operations in the city because of the hydroelectric power and the renewable energy it offers, Haders said.

“We always want to be a little bit more sustainable as we move forward,” she said.

While the second floor of the downtown location is expected to start growing vegetables in the near future, the first floor will be dedicated to packing, harvesting, cooling and germination.

A lighted letter sign will be placed in a prominent location on the north side of the building sometime later this year.

“It’ll look really great,” she said.

Head grower Robert Norris holds freshly plucked tomatoes at 80 Acres Farms that is now operating in downtown Hamilton. They purchased the former Miami Motor Car Co. building on S. 2nd Street in February 2017 and have renovated it to create an indoor farm facility. The special pink colored lighting is controlled by a timer for optimal growing conditions. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Photo: Nick Graham

A form of farming on the rise

Indoor farming, which includes hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics soil-based and hybrid, has gained significant popularity in recent years as its technology has become more defined. That, industry experts say, has allowed a large amount of fresh and green vegetable produced in city environments, with minimum space and less water utilization than typical techniques on conventional farms.

The global indoor farming technology market accounted for nearly $6.5 billion in 2017, according to a 2018 Zion Market Research report. That number is expected to reach nearly $15.3 billion globally by 2024, growing at an annual growth rate of around 13.2 percent through 2024.

Vertical farming is a form of controlled environment agriculture, or CEA, that consists of fully insulated indoor operations, producing crops of vegetables and other foods on multiple levels instead of on a single level, such as in a field or a greenhouse.

They rely solely using electrical lighting and are touted as a solution to many environmental issues in food production, partially because they are protected from the outside environment, and can be constructed in even the most extreme environments.

Chris Stout, the executive chef at Coach House Tavern & Grille, said using 80 Acres Farms products, which are harvested the day before they are served to customers, has made a tremendous difference for the Hamilton restaurant.

“The flavor of their products is just so much more intense than anything that I’ve gotten elsewhere,” Stout previously told this news outlet.

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