Illumitex helps Buckeye Fresh improve production, labor and energy efficiency
COMPANY: Buckeye Fresh
LOCATION: Medina, Ohio
SECTOR: Vertical farming
CROPS: A variety of leafy greens, including basil, kale, lettuce, arugula and spinach.
TECHNOLOGY: Illumitex Gen1 and Gen2 LED bar fixtures
Buckeye Fresh CEO Tim Remington started the vertical farm operation in 2014 after retiring from a manufacturing business. Buckeye Fresh is located in a converted 55,000- square-foot industrial building in Medina, Ohio, just south of Cleveland. The company has about 30,000 square feet of production area with 10 utility scale vertical growing racks consisting of five or six levels.
The company hydroponically grows a variety of leafy greens including basil, kale, lettuce, arugula and spinach. The pesticide-free, non-GMO produce is sold to independent grocery chains and restaurants throughout Ohio and the Midwest.
When Tim Remington started Buckeye Fresh he was not familiar with hydroponic production. His interest in starting a vertical farm operation began when he attended a green technology conference and saw how these production systems could be used to sustainably grow produce for local market sales.
Remington initially worked with technology providers to assist in the setup of a vertical farm system that included LED lighting fixtures.
Remington approached Illumitex when he was not satisfied with the quality and quantity of the crops being grown in the vertical farm system that had been installed.
“About two years ago Buckeye Fresh officials approached us and we started working together on basically improving their current operation from every point of view, not just in horticultural lighting,” said Paul Hardej, vice president horticulture lighting turn-key solutions at Illumitex. “The services that we offer are broader than just the aspect of lighting. We can consult with companies on the planning side, process design, plant biology, growing recipes, etc. They came to us and said they had some issues. Their plants were not growing as well as they should and they asked for assistance in resolving those issues.”
Hardej said when Illumitex engineers began working with Buckeye Fresh they looked at the operation comprehensively advising the company at multiple levels.
“Obviously, the focus was lighting solutions, but it went much further than that,” Hardej said. “We kept the same hydroponic production system that they had installed. We improved the lighting. We also improved their growing methodology. We kept the majority of what they were already using and made it better.”
Although Buckeye Fresh had initially installed some Illumitex Gen1 LED bar fixtures, Hardej said the company was not using the fixtures to their full potential.
“We showed them how to properly use light intensity in the growing process,” he said. “We also installed an Illumitex dimming system, which allows them to dim the LED grow lights at different stages of growth. They are also able to program different lighting recipes and make it work with a particular plant biology and plant growing recipes. We showed them how to use the lighting, but also how to make it much more efficient and programmable. We also replaced some LED lights from another manufacturer with our Eclipse Gen2 bar fixtures.”
Illumitex also worked with Buckeye Fresh to set up testing of leaf tissue samples and the hydroponic nutrient solution.
“We helped them set up procedures where they measure and test the nutrients in the hydroponic solution. We helped them set up a schedule for taking plant tissue samples and sending them to a testing lab for analyses. We helped them understand those reports and how the results of those tests were affected by the lighting.”
Illumitex also assisted with improving food safety protocols.
“Buckeye Fresh has done an excellent job on their own regarding food safety, but another set of eyes is always helpful in looking for ways to improve the system,” Hardej said. “We are now working with them on organic certification. Some of their retail customers told them that if they became organic certified they could probably double their sales. We are in the process of rewriting some of the growing recipes and are putting together an organic system plan under USDA regulations and guidelines.”
The improvements made by Buckeye Fresh in its production system allowed the company to expand its production and to expand the crops it was growing.
“When light is static and the light intensity is not manipulated for certain crops, there may be too much light for some crops and not enough light for others,” Hardej said. “Once the light intensity can be manipulated and an on-and-off function can be scheduled, more crops can be grown under the same light.
“They were also able to increase their biomass production, which means they were able to grow more crops per production area faster. They increased the production speed.”
Another benefit of the system changes was the improvement in crop quality.
“Improvements in quality included the visual quality, the leaf color and uniformity of the color,” Hardej said. “That comes from proper nutrition. The flavor profile also increased.
“Waste was reduced because there were less imperfect leafy greens that can’t be sold. It’s not a question of how much biomass is produced per square foot, but how much biomass can actually be sold.”
Hardej said Buckeye Fresh was also able to improve energy consumption efficiency or productivity.
“As crops get sick and are not perfect, such as nutrient-deficient crops, there is much more labor involved in harvesting, sorting and packing to make sure that the customer is receiving a quality product,” he said. “When there is a healthy plant canopy and very uniform growth, regardless of whether a grower is operating a traditional farm or a vertical farm, when first rate crops are produced usually there is a dramatic reduction in labor costs because the harvesting and packing processes are much easier and faster.
“We were also able to help them set up dimming systems and on-and-off functions for their lighting so they are producing more with less energy and less labor so they were able to increase their bottom line.”
“There are many players in horticulture LED lighting and Illumitex is by far the leader of the pack. The staff is knowledgeable and has been a great service to us as we grow our indoor farm. For those of us who have ventured into vertical farming and do not have farming experience, we must rely on the help of industry experts. Illumitex has filled that need for us.”
– Tim Remington, Principle
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