Trying to feed the world with vertical farming
Not far from the southern end of Chisholm Trail Parkway is a side road with the kind of warehouse-style buildings you might drive by without even thinking about them, although it's pretty hard not to notice the Wal-Mart distribution center.
Across from the center is a fairly anonymous-looking structure, with a large greenhouse near the road. Inside the greenhouse are rows and rows of produce — romaine, kale, bok choy, mustard greens — stretching from front to back and, more unusually, from the floor to nearly the ceiling.
Each plant has its own perch, and sits vinelike on 18-foot-tall pipes. On each perch, a small stream of water reaches each plant — and each plant has its own microclimate. And that is one of the unique things about Eden Green Technology, the Dallas-based "vertical-farming" company behind the Cleburne facility.
"We control the microclimate of [each] plant," says Gentry Beach, co-chairman of Eden Green. "It's almost like, think if you had air-conditioning in your house, but it was only one foot around you. You wouldn't need to air-condition your whole house — just right around you."
It can be a little hard to wrap your head around, even after company executives conducted a tour showing how the system works: The technology uses nutrient-filled water, which comes not from Cleburne's water system but from condensation inside the greenhouse, and employs sunlight instead of LED lights, which saves on energy.
The greenhouse captures carbon gas that plants absorb for fuel.
Company officials say the technology will allow for 10 to 15 harvests a year, compared with two or three for conventional farms, meaning that fresher produce will be on shelves year-round. They add that the system will also reduce produce contamination, since produce is planted, picked and packed at the facility and kept cold till it's delivered to a retail distributor.
It's not a coincidence that there's a Wal-Mart distribution center across the street. Wal-Mart is Eden Green's first big retail partner, and part of Eden Green's philosophy is to build near its partners' distribution centers, so that produce can be delivered the day it's harvested. At a Wednesday morning preview event, the company introduced Crisply, a pesticide/herbicide/chemical-free produce line scheduled to debut July 15 in Texas Wal-Mart stores. Beach says that the initial rollout will be about 20 stores, but then it will expand to 100 stores and then more.
"Lots of people have tried to do small, urban things, you know, stuff in shipping containers," Beach says. "We wanted this to be a product for the masses. People'd say, 'Why'd you start with Wal-Mart? They're the everyday low-price guys. You've got a premium product.' I said, 'We want to give this to everyone.' "
The growth of an idea
Eden Green was formed about a year ago in Dallas, but its roots stretch back to several years ago in South Africa. According to a brief introductory speech by co-chairman Jaco Booyens (a South Africa native who has lived in Dallas for several years), it began with the vision of two brothers, Jacques and Eugene Van Buuren, from South Africa.
The brothers had rented a bounce house and brought it to an orphanage in their home country. They were handing out candy to children and they noticed that one little boy kept coming back for candy, but instead of eating it, he would stuff it in his pockets.
One of the brothers asked the little boy why he wasn't eating the sweets immediately. "He said, 'It's not my day to eat,' " Booyens said, relating the tale. "And he explained to Jacques and Eugene that it was his 3-year-old sister's day to eat. So while he was ... at the jumping castle, having fun, he was going to take that candy back to the rural village to feed his sister."
Believing that no one should go hungry, the brothers were inspired to come up with a way of producing nutrient-rich food that was quickly accessible to everyone. They spent at least eight years developing a vertical-farm technology.
During that time, Booyens and Beach, who had also been looking at vertical farming for a number of years, met the Van Buurens. The Dallas residents flew to South Africa to discuss a business plan with the brothers, and the Van Buurens made trips to America. Jacques Van Buuren is now the company's chief operating officer; Eugene is the co-chief technology officer.
Part of the company's mission is a program called First Fruits, in which it will donate the first portion of every harvest to local communities in need. The North Texas Food Bank will be its first U.S. recipient.
More than 40 varieties of produce
Although Booyens told the Van Buurens' story, they were at the preview, and Jacques Van Buuren helped lead a brief tour of the greenhouse.
"We've got nutrients running from the top," Van Buuren said, standing amid one of the rows of 18-foot-tall pipes. "We control temperatures, humidity, everything a plant requires. But we do it for every individual plant. The moment that we can create this environment, we can do something unique. We're not heating up or cooling down the whole greenhouse."
Trey Thomas, CEO of Eden Green, was also on the tour and added that there are more than 40 varieties of produce growing in the greenhouse right now — but that's because of demand. "We can grow an unlimited amount of varietals," he said. "Each different vine can be a different varietal. We can actually blend some of the vines."
According to Thomas, a normal farm grows about one plant per square foot; an Eden Green vine is effectively one square foot. "If you think about a normal farm, you'd have a plant here, a plant there at ground level," he said. "We have an 18-foot-tall vine, with 36 plants on each vine. Because we don't use herbicides or pesticides or any harmful chemicals, we're able to do this in 27 to 32 days."
Samples of produce were available, both as straight leaf and in hors d'oeuvre-style samples. A mustard green started off with an herblike taste, then unleashed its mustard flavor, which finished with an almost wasabi-level kick. A chocolate-mint leaf might not have had the force of an Andes mint, but definitely had a chocolate flavor that came through. A take on a tomato-mozzarella salad got an earthy punch from its tomatoes. Dallas chef Tiffany Derry, who has appeared as a contestant on "Top Chef" and "Top Chef All-Stars" made a healthy, gingery green juice using ingredients grown in the greenhouse.
Booyens said that the Cleburne facility — currently 44,000 square feet with plans to grow to a million — grows the most food per square foot on the planet. The company hopes to add similar facilities nationwide and even worldwide.
"We are able to do what you see here today in every climate zone on the planet," Booyens said. 'We can do this in the Abu Dhabi desert ... and we're excited to announced that we will be going to the Caribbean this year." He added that strategic locations are planned throughout the United States.
As enthusiastic as Eden Green officials are about their technology, they're also continually working to improve it. "Things are still evolving," said Beach, the co-chairman. "We're kind of like Johnny Appleseed. We had a seed, now we have a dream."