NEW BUFFALO - A former plastics factory in New Buffalo is proving fertile ground for what could be part of a worldwide agriculture revolution.
"We really think we can feed the world" with a system called vertical farming, said Milan Kluko, an engineer who launched Green Spirit Farms, making a $3 million investment in the former Plastics Masters factory on U.S. 12.
Vertical farming employs rotating cylinders that circulate plants around an energy-efficient light source, using 90 percent less water than traditional and hydroponic agriculture and taking up much less space.
Tomatoes that would occupy an acre of ground outside take up only 345 square feet with a vertical farm.
Because it's all indoors, plants can be grown year-round, safe from such unpredictable elements as extremes in the weather. Because there are no pests inside, no pesticides or herbicides are needed.
"We're influencing things that have never been influenced before," said Kluko, by sheltering crops from extremes of heat, rain and the frost that devastated the state's fruit crop in April.
And because items are grown and marketed locally, the expense and pollution associated with long-distance transportation is eliminated.
Their produce can be picked in the morning and be on the shelf by noon, Kluko said. All of Green Spirit's packaging will be compostable.
The motto at Green Spirit Farm is "quicker, better, faster."
The growing cylinders themselves are produced by Omega Farm, a Canadian company, and have mostly been used by home gardeners.
Kluko said he believes his is the first commercial operation to use Omega's cylinders in the United States, and probably in the Western Hemisphere.
He recently returned from London, where they set up a demonstration garden near the Olympic Village, which will grow vegetables to feed athletes.
There is a lot of excitement about the possibilities in the United Kingdom, which has to import a lot of its produce, Kluko said.
They have been sending data from their research to a company in India, a country which has tens of millions of children to feed, said Ben Wiggins, site manager at Green Spirit Farm.
A vertical farm can operate "in a cold climate, a really hot climate, and anything in between," Kluko said. All you need is a building with a 22-foot ceiling that doesn't leak, and a little wind or sun as an energy source.
But before branching out, Kluko wants to take root in the local market.
After a year of research, Green Spirit Farm took possession of a portion of the Plastics Masters factory, which has been vacant for 10 years. The 40,000- square-foot building sits on 27 acres.
The first plantings took place in January, including "Fred," a cucumber plant named by Kluko's daughter.
This is definitely a family operation, with his son Dan handling the computer and other technology, and wife Vida Kluko, a glass artisan, taking on design and marketing duties.
Another business was to have occupied part of the building, but went bankrupt and had to move out its equipment, delaying full implementation of the Green Spirit Farm operation.
They hope to be fully operational by September, with 123 growing stations in one room and 70 in another.
Each cylinder holds 80 plants, and six cylinders are stacked together about 20 feet high at each station. That's 480 plants growing in the space of a bathroom, instead of 1,000 acres of farm land.
Omega Garden's founder didn't exactly re-invent the wheel, but found another application for it, Kluko acknowledged.
In fact, much of the project uses what he calls "old-new technology."
After experimenting with several different light sources, Kluko and co. settled on an induction lamp, which Dan Kluko points out was invented by Nikola Tesla in 1891.
The light uses an electro-magnet to excite argon gas as its light source, instead of a filament. For this reason they use much less energy and can last up to 100,000 hours, twice as long as an LED light.
They are the first commercial farm to use the induction lamp, Milan Kluko said.
Because the light burns at a much lower temperature than lights used in hydroponics, it can be kept closer to the plant, reducing energy loss, Kluko said as he laid his hand on the illuminated lamp that burns at 140 degrees - compared to a metal halide light that radiates at 750 degrees.
The cylinders rotate once every 50 minutes using a low-horsepower motor. The farm will install wind turbines and solar panels as its energy source.
Rain water will be captured and distilled. Even water is recycled from a humidifier.
"We're actually harvesting humidity," Kluko boasted of another unique feature of Green Spirit Farms. "I don't know of anyone else doing that."
They are seeing some impressive results.
Plants, which take root in a material called rock wool, grow faster and can be harvested more often than in traditional farming because of the controlled conditions.
Basil plants can be harvested every 21 days, Kluko said. They have already collected three crops of the herb by picking only the leaves.
Heirloom greens, including a spicy leaf called rocket arugula, are being grown for local restaurants.
They are growing cherry tomatoes "the size of cue balls," Kluko said. Lettuce leaves are gargantuan compared to typical plants.
People who have tasted some of the produce are surprised to find that it has been grown indoors.
"Tasting is believing, I guess," Kluko said. "We grow tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, not cardboard."
Most produce can be grown in a vertical farm except items such as corn, potatoes and soybeans.
A lot of organic produce sold in this area comes from California and Arizona and has to be picked early and shipped 2,000 miles, Kluko said.
He is concentrating on getting goods to the local markets, including Chicago, only 65 miles away, or what he calls the "super-local" market within 50 miles of the farm. He is further planning a retail outlet at the site.
In addition to restaurants such as New Buffalo's Stray Dog, Kluko is interesting neighborhood supermarkets in carrying his crops.
They will participate in the Farm to Table Festival at the Round Barn Winery in Baroda in September.
The big obstacle to having this industry take off is investment capital, which has become even more difficult to secure since the 2008 economic downturn, Kluko said.
But Kluko, who calls himself the "big idea" guy and the fundraiser for the farm, stresses that the revenue per square foot and the yield per square foot of a vertical garden is unmatched by anything else in agriculture.
"With four or five of these operations, we could feed Chicago," Kluko said.
Kluko is not only interested in the next crop of tomatoes or cilantro, but the next generation of consumers.
Last Earth Day he invited in students from New Buffalo schools to learn about the operation and participate. They planted trees on the property as a "mini reforestation" project, and they planted basil inside, learning about chemistry, biology and botany first-hand. They used the Internet to calculate how much petroleum it takes to package and ship produce from the West Coast.
Kluko said he wants to turn some of the grounds into what he calls The Earth Campus, where students can learn where their food comes from and what they can do to use resources more efficiently.
Green Spirit Farm has submitted a proposal to the Pokagon Fund, which grants money from casino revenue for community projects, for support for The Earth Campus.
He is working with Michigan Works on job training for future "green collar" employment.
The London project came about following a speaking engagement by Kluko, a well-known expert on sustainability in business and erosion control. Coincidentally, the theme of the event is "Farm Olympics," designed by filmmaker Danny Boyle.
He has donated one of the growing stations to a London-area school, and would like to see a sister school relationship established with New Buffalo students, who could share their growing expertise.
"We think this is the future of farming," said Ben Wiggins, site manager at Green Spirit Farm.
For information, visit www.green spiritfarm.com.