Visions of a salad factory
AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS At his home, Steve Pheiffer has been experimenting growing tomatoes, basil, rosemary, cauliflower, bell pepper, watermelon and cucumber hydroponically-in nutrient-infused water without soil.
Steve Pheiffer of Penn Forest believes that America's food distribution system is in need of a makeover.
He wonders how long can we continue to transport produce thousands of miles to markets in northeastern Pennsylvania, importing factory-farmed food - harvested while immature - from fields treated with pesticides and herbicides.
So, he has been thinking about a time when there will be factory farms in northeastern Pennsylvania - literally, since they will be built in abandoned factories converted to LED grow light hydroponic farming.
Pheiffer, a marine biologist, has a passion for studying plant growth. He is the owner of Cambrian Biotechnologies, Inc. in Palmerton, a company that creates products to help plants grow.
At his home, Pheiffer has experimented by growing tomatoes, basil, rosemary, cauliflower, bell pepper, watermelon and cucumber hydroponically, in nutrient-infused water without soil. To support the plants, in lieu of soil, he uses marble-sized balls of a porous brick-like material called Hydroton.
Pheiffer begins with a commercial seedling which comes in a plug of soil. He then takes the seedling and sets the plug of soil and its developing roots in a net pot - a plastic pot with open net-like sides - filled with Hydroton. The net pot is placed into a recess in a dock that floats on the surface of a tub of water. The plant is above the dock and the roots extend into the water.
He uses fresh water to which a nutrient fertilizer has been added. An electrical conductivity meter is used to monitor and maintain the proper nutrient level. Fresh nutrients are typically added monthly. A water pump and aerator are used to circulate the nutrients and air in the solution.
So far, except for the herb cilantro which likes a dry climate, all Pheiffer's plants have grown well hydroponically. Now, he's looking to take them indoors. Historically, excepting for certain commercially high-value plants like orchards and marijuana, indoor cultivation was too expensive, principally because of the power demands of the high-intensity halide, sodium, and fluorescent plant grow lights for indoor gardening.
Pheiffer feels that the future of indoor gardening lies with the light emitting diode. Not only do LEDs put out insignificant amounts of heat at 10 to 50 percent of the power required, but they can be designed to only put out the colors of light that the plants require for photosythesis which tends to be red and blue, saving even more power.
Pheiffer suggests that we should "find old abandoned warehouses, a few stories high. On the top floor, lettuce can be planted; on the middle floor you grow tomatoes, and the lower floor, cucumbers" - in effect, a salad factory.
"There's a drive-by kiosk and the patron comes to the window to collect fresh, organically produced lettuce, herbs, etc.," he noted. "Spices are most profitable."
Pheiffer believes that, because of the controlled environment, indoor hydroponic veggies tend to be free of pesticides and herbicides.
"If bugs come in they will be in such limited numbers that they can be picked off by hand," he said.
The tipping point in Pheiffer's plan is the initial cost of LED grow lights which can run about $1,200 to light a five-foot-by-five foot growing space. He's hoping to find a local partner with an expertise in developing low-cost, dedicated spectrum LED lighting.
If Pheiffer's ideas come together and he can turn abandoned factories into competitively priced four-season hydroponic organic farms, then perhaps the northeastern Pennsylvania rust belt will become the green belt via salad factories, and we all can have fresher, healthier food.