State-of-the-art, solar greenhouses feed rural America with both food and internet service
Two native Kansans are manufacturing a state-of-the-art farm facility on very little land. By building solar-powered greenhouses, the pair hope to revolutionize farming – and technology – in Kansas.
In addition to growing all types of fruits and vegetables for local consumption, these solar-powered greenhouses will build up energy to power a 5G data center, bringing fast-speed internet to rural Kansas.
These solar-powered greenhouses are in the construction phase on an 11-acre property in rural Marquette. By next summer, they plan to erect a larger campus in McPherson and then expand to western Kansas by 2025, increasing to 12 locations statewide, including Topeka.
“If something can grow outdoors, it can grow indoors,” said Lenny Geist, who is the CEO of Kansas Freedom Farms, the organization in charge of this project. “It just depends on how well you do it, and will it be profitable.”
Geist and Hinson, along with investors, will produce hydroponic produce, herbs and feed for animals in greenhouses designed by Hinson. Hinson, a native of Winfield, has designed and manufactured solar panels for decades. He realized by manipulating the way these panels operate, he can maintain plants in optimal sunlight, control temperatures, help the environment and create a way to harvest energy.
Because of solar income tax credit initiatives, the structures can gain tax credits, making the farms economically interesting.
“My patent makes it so that the greenhouse structure qualifies as a solar support structure, so it gets the investment tax credit for solar,” Hinson said.
Hinson, who holds a degree from Kansas State University, designed a system that works similarly to controlled Venetian blinds – continually adjusting the temperature and amount of sunlight by using a specifically-designed software program. These acrylic solar panels are approximately 14 by 4 ½ feet and 10 inches thick.
“You can dial them back,” Hinson said. “They rotate to the percentage of the sun (they need).”
In addition to solar energy, the greenhouses will have multiple levels for growing, placing items that need the most sun on the top level and those that need no sun at the bottom. Along with an advanced hydroponic system, water will be collected from gutters when it rains.
The first campus is located near downtown Marquette, with a population of slightly more than 600 residents. The company plans to place 11 acres under glass. This amounts to 60 greenhouses.
They will hire a manager who graduated from a greenhouse horticulture program at Cornell University. Other employees will come on board as the program expands. These workers will know or be trained in hydroponics and aeroponics. They will also learn about environmental monitoring, pest management and food safety.
Next stop, McPherson
The McPherson campus will be much larger than the Marquette one, containing approximately 50 acres under glass. McPherson, which boasts a population of more than 13,000, sits along the Interstate 135 corridor.
Each greenhouse in both cities will focus on specific vegetables and fruits, including strawberries, which grow easily and produce a substantial profit. The produce will be shipped to local markets, helping keep them fresh.
“We hope to have 1,000 acres under glass in the next 10 years,” Hinson said. “It’s been a brainchild waiting on money.”
According to Geist, this concept uses 5% to 10% of the water needed for outdoor crops.
“We recycle the water so none of it is wasted,” Geist said. “You can replicate this campus anywhere in the world where it’s feasible.”
Along with fine-tuning the light source for specific plants, the company will grow feed for animals in this year-round farm using controlled environment agriculture. By using CEA, the food grown in the local greenhouse can stay within its vicinity, decreasing transportation costs and time.
“Because it is local, you can pick it when it’s ripe,” said Amy Hilske, the director of the Plant Growth Facility at the Greenhouse Innovation Center on the Nebraska Innovation Campus at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. “The bonus with hydroponics is your chances of E. coli (Escherichia coli) or salmonella are greatly decreased.”
But as far as corn, sorghum and wheat, Hilske said, the field is definitely better for growth of these commodities, due to both size and cost of inputs. The University of Nebraska Greenhouse Innovation Center has a state-of-the-art greenhouse facility that grows both crops and vegetables for research.
Each greenhouse facility erected by Kansas Freedom Farms will contain three revenue streams. The first is the farm product. Second, is the sale of excess solar energy, and third is the 5G digital communications center. The greenhouses are expected to utilize roughly 40% of the energy gathered.
This center will feature increased internet capabilities for the surrounding communities.
“It will improve the reception,” Hinson said.
Keeping food fresh and local
Vertical greenhouse farming has operated successfully for decades in The Netherlands and Israel. Gotham Greens, based in New York City, specializes in greens and has a long and successful history in CEAs.
“You can take food fresh from the vertical farm and take it to their stores the same day,” Geist said. “We’re creating our own renewable energy. (We’re hoping to produce) two million pounds of produce per acre per year.”