When Debbie and Grant Strong launched their farm, Strong Vertical Gardens, in 2012, they were determined to bring locally sourced produce and microgreens to tables across their home state of Utah. But they had some unique ideas on how to go about this: namely, growing crops sustainably, hydroponically and indoors to extend the life of the products, eliminate the need to wash them and provide superior quality.
The Need for Greens
The farm quickly established itself as a reliable source for produce and now has two product lines, restaurants and retail. “One is for restaurant chefs to use more as a garnish. And now some of them are starting to incorporate our retail product line, which is like a micro-broccoli, micro-kale. They’re incorporating those into salads and making nutrient-packed, nutrient-dense salads for the consumer,” Debbie explained.
Today, the produce graces plates at prestigious locales such as Montage Restaurant in Deer Valley, Utah; the Four Seasons in Jackson, Wyoming; Grappa Restaurant in Park City, Utah; St. Regis Deer Valley in Park City, Utah; and Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. They are stocked at local outlets of major grocers like Whole Foods, and retail products are sold in Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho and Montana. Providers clearly recognized the superior quality of Strong Vertical Gardens’ greens, as well as the environmentally responsible practices of the farm.
But if Strong Vertical Gardens was going to keep up with demand, it needed to expand its space. It was operating the business out of just 1,700 square feet. A key part of any expansion would be upgrading the LED lighting used to grow crops: Failures related to the existing LEDs were becoming more common, and the problem was compounded by the fact that the fixtures had stopped being manufactured in 2014.
“We needed help to provide a consistent product, not only to the restaurants that we service but also the retail line,” Grant said.
Strong Vertical Gardens worked with Hort Americas to determine which LED lighting solution was best for the future of the indoor farm. Hort Americas created a customized design to maximize warehouse space, recommend a new lighting solution and map where LED lighting would need to be located to optimize growth of the microgreens. Based on this plan, Strong Vertical Gardens commissioned three specially made towers. Each measured approximately 60 feet long and 12 feet wide, and had seven levels for growing.
They then purchased 420 GE Reproductive Arize™ Lynk battens. Measuring 8 feet in length, these lights boast a 6:1 red-to-blue ratio set to maximize efficiency in an indoor farm and to promote plant growth. The higher red content fosters flowering and leaf expansion, increasing the edible portion of the plants.
Installation was a breeze, thanks to the legwork the team did early in the process. Clips had previously been added to the growing towers according to the exact specifications of the Arize™ Lynk lights, allowing the battens to be easily placed in precisely the right locations. Costs were also lowered because the GE fixtures could be daisy-chained. This makes it much easier to install lights and results in fewer junction boxes with electrical connections—factors that significantly contributed to the decision to purchase the Arize™ LEDs. “The installation of the lights was much easier than ever before,” Debbie said. “With the links, it made it so slick; he just installed it so quickly, and it holds up really nicely.”
Several months into the project, Strong Vertical Gardens is thrilled with its success. The LEDs help grow the equivalent of 6 acres of crops in just 9,000 square feet. The quality of the greens they are growing has also benefited: Thanks to Hort Americas optimized design and the even cast of the GE Reproductive Arize™ Lynks, the crops grow more uniformly throughout the facility.
“The GE lights are just far superior. It’s got a way better cast,” Grant said. “It’s more consistent, we get higher yield. We get more product per tray just because of the good, even light.” That is critical for maintaining the farm’s reputation and the high quality of the greens, especially those going to restaurants.
Although Strong Vertical Gardens is expanding too quickly to pinpoint an exact energy savings, Debbie and Grant are pleased with how the LEDs align with their sustainability goals. Their facility was already pesticide- and herbicide-free, but the new LED lighting greatly increases efficiency compared to the older models they were using. Strong Vertical Gardens went from 35 watts with the older lights to 64.6 watts with GE Arize™.
Additionally, increasing from 110 volts to 220 volts with the GE LEDs allowed them to cut down energy consumption. “The 220 has definitely saved us money,” Debbie said. They found even more savings in the smart tower design and even cast of the lights, since they don’t have to use as many fixtures to cover the same area. The GE fixtures are already proving themselves to be a good long-term investment. In addition to the longer rated life—36,000 hours compared to 25,000 with the old LEDs—maintenance is much easier, as the clips ensure new LEDs can be quickly removed or inserted where necessary. The newer LEDs also emit less heat than their predecessors, minimizing the need for cooling and providing further savings opportunities.
The expansion allows Strong Vertical Gardens to bring more products to consumers while still maintaining their high quality and without sacrificing their commitment to sustainability. Their efforts caught the eye of many food distributors and restauranteurs—as well as some notable figures in Washington, D.C. The farm works closely with the USDA, and a representative from the office of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recently paid a visit.
“His assistant came out and toured our facility, and she said she had never seen anything like it in the entire United States,” Debbie said. “She’s just never seen anybody growing like this ... and succeeding at it.” By upgrading LED lighting to maximize space, optimize growth and improve energy efficiency, Strong Vertical Gardens is well on its way to building a brighter future.
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