Vertical Hydroponics

Biofilm control and much more...

Micro Farms LLC of Indiana

While initially doing research on using DO to help control biofilm, Dion Graber, owner of Microfarms, LLC in Indiana noticed a marked difference in yields out of his produce. He’s gone all in, using O2Grow’s largest oxygenator, the O2Grow-2250 to add DO to his irrigation tank for all of his plants. The market farmer, who provides fresh produce to local markets, says he’s seen an increase of 40% in tomato production, 50% in cucumbers and 60% in peppers. He says they’re also experiencing earlier harvests of lettuce (5-6 days earlier) out of their hydroponic system.

    “Everything seems to look a lot healthier, the plants take up nutrients better,” says Graber. “This is a great find, it’s been incredible.”

Micro farm, macro impact

Reprinted With Permission From Produce Grower Magazine, March 25, 2019Brooke Bilyj | Photography by Erin Elliott, except where noted

Micro Farms Greenhouse Worker Harvests Lettuce
Biofilm reduction

Nestled in the heartland of northern Indiana’s Amish country sits a shimmering glass greenhouse where fresh produce is grown, 365 days a year, without any pesticides or herbicides. Although the facility occupies a mere quarter of an acre, the owners of Micro Farms hope to revolutionize global food production with their innovations.

“Our big-picture goal for Micro Farms is to develop technology and growing systems to provide wholesome food to people globally,” says Loren Graber, who established the hydroponic greenhouse about five years ago.

“There are too many people who go to bed hungry,” adds Dion Graber, Loren’s son and head grower. “With all the technology and resources available, we should be able to feed them.”

Building on a long farming history, the Graber family has been producing food on this property for generations. Back in the ’80s, before Dion was born, Loren ran the family’s corn, soybean and dairy farm in Nappanee, Indiana. One day, he jokingly mentioned to the farm’s agronomist, Steve Kiefer, that he would start a greenhouse operation someday.

But then, soon after Dion was born, milk prices plummeted — forcing Loren to find work in another field. At the time, he didn’t realize that his new job in vinyl fencing would inspire the innovation to bring his greenhouse to life.

“Since he was in the vinyl business and he has PVC connections, vertical farming was right up his alley,” Dion says. “He’s always been an inventor at heart, and he has multiple patents. He just loves thinking outside the box and trying to come up with new things that are more efficient.”

Leveraging his inventive curiosity, his knowledge of vinyl and his drive to make traditional agriculture more efficient, Loren designed and patented his own vertical hydroponic/aeroponic tubes. He asked Kiefer to team up with him again, and they established Micro Farms in late 2013 with the dream of farming differently. Dion jumped onboard as head grower, and several years later, his younger brother Nick joined the family business to execute their father’s dream.

Micro Farms - Growing Tomatoes
40% more Tomatoes

“The plants just respond better to rainwater,” says Dion, who also uses an O2 Grow system to “supercharge” the water with dissolved oxygen.“We’re trying to imitate exactly what a plant would get out in the ground, but with no soil.”

“Vertical” integration

Loren considered using traditional, single-layer hydroponic systems that used floating rafts — deep water culture (DWC) — or the nutrient film technique (NFT), where nutrient-rich water circulates past the bare roots of plants in enclosed channels. But these horizontal layouts required too much space — pointing him toward vertical farming instead.

“You get so much more product per square foot when you grow vertically,” Dion says. “We have 320 tubes in a 4,000-square-foot area, and we can fit 46,823 plants in that 4,000 square feet. That’s roughly 10 plants per square foot.”

Micro Farms’ “Verti Tubes” are 12 feet tall and eight inches in diameter. Loren’s patented design features removable growing cups and trays that pop out of the tube for cleaner, easier harvesting. Prongs in each cup hold a foam cube in place to support the plant’s roots, and a small groove in the bottom of each cup channels water down as it trickles through the tube.

“The biggest thing that separates us when it comes to our Verti Tubes is the removable cup,” Dion says. “Most of them are molded in and you can’t take them out, so our design is better for cleaning purposes. It’s easier to harvest your plants, because if the roots are too long, they’ll get caught when you try to pull them out.”

The foam cubes can be removed with the roots still intact, allowing Micro Farms to harvest and sell living lettuce with a shelf-life of at least two weeks — leaving minimal cleanup behind.

Micro Farms - Peppers
60% more Peppers

Finding the right mix

The Grabers broke ground in fall 2012, and then a team of builders from Rough Brothers constructed the Venlo greenhouse in 2013. The glass structure contains a 3,000-square-foot head house for seed-starting, a 4,000-square-foot space filled with Verti Tubes, and another 4,000-square-foot space for vertical vine crops.

Dion didn’t have any experience with hydroponics, so he and Kiefer attended the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona for a “quick crash course” that packed “six months’ worth of college courses into five days, and then another four months in two days,” he says. “That’s where my knowledge started, but at least 80 percent of my growing knowledge is just hands-on.”

When Dion started growing, he experimented with 23 varieties of leafy greens that he seeded weekly. Through trials, he whittled that collection down to 10 varieties, based on what grew and sold best.

The front half of the greenhouse is dedicated to leafy greens like butterhead and oakleaf lettuce, kale and pak choi grown in Graber’s hydroponic/aeroponic Verti Tubes. In the back half, vine crops like tomatoes, red bell peppers and snacker cucumbers are strung up toward the ceiling from hydroponic Bato buckets below — which are filled with recycled glass Growstone that can be rinsed and reused.

Dion and Nick continue to explore new varieties together — switching up greens in the summer to include basil and other heat-loving plants. They’re even trying strawberries in the Verti Tubes.

“We’re constantly experimenting,” Dion says.

Watering the natural way

In addition to Loren’s innovation, the design of the greenhouse also drives efficiency at Micro Farms.

For example, each peak of the Venlo greenhouse roof has a vent on each side. “Whichever way the wind blows, the opposite side opens, so you don’t have a dramatic change in temperature,” Dion explains. “And then every valley has a gutter where we collect rainwater, which is stored in a 25,000-gallon tank under the floor of the headhouse.”

The roof of the warehouse next door also collects rainwater to supplement the operation. They have access to well water, if needed, but they rarely need to tap into that supply.

“The plants just respond better to rainwater,” says Dion, who also uses an O2 Grow system to “supercharge” the water with dissolved oxygen. “We’re trying to imitate exactly what a plant would get out in the ground, but with no soil.”

To that end, Kiefer formulated a mix of granular fertilizers mined from the ground — including Epsom salt, potash, potassium nitrate, monopotassium phosphate and calcium nitrate — that’s added to the water.

O2Grow 2250 with 2 Emitters
O2Grow 2250

Looking to the future

The Graber family is eager to share their hydroponic innovations with other growers. The first phase of this long-term plan is their home growing unit, which is slated to hit the retail market later this year.

A smaller version of their greenhouse Verti Tubes, the home hydroponic units, are mounted on a rolling cart that can be wheeled outside. Or, the unit can sit in a kitchen, using an optional LED strip and rotating function to provide sufficient light inside. The home unit features Loren’s patented removable cups and trays, allowing consumers to hydroponically grow 24 plants with minimal mess or maintenance.

Looking even further into the future, the Grabers’ dream of improving food production around the world by providing greenhouse supplies, resources and knowledge to communities in underserved nations like Haiti and Africa, where they’ve been involved in mission work.

“We want to teach other people how to grow. Ultimately, our big goal is to feed the hungry by educating them and setting them up for success,” Dion says. “Because our tubes maximize product per square foot, we think it could definitely make a difference.”

Brooke is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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