Top-shelf growing with LEDs

Mike Zelkind’s vertical farming company, 80 Acres Farms, relies on technology and expertise for its success.

Mike Zelkind worked in the food industry for more than 25 years before co-founding and becoming CEO of 80 Acres, an indoor farming company producing pesticide-free crops. He spent time in operations, marketing and sales at leading food companies such as General Mills, Conagra Foods, Bumble Bee Foods, Advance Pierre, and as the president and later CEO of Sager Creek Vegetable Company, a division of DelMonte Foods.

In that time, Zelkind came to believe that technology could help improve what was available to consumers while offering them local food. As a result, he cofounded 80 Acres Farms with Tisha Livingston in 2015. Its products are available at retailers such as Dorothy Lane Markets, Rouses, Whole Foods and Jungle Jim’s International Market, and through broadline food service distributors like USFoods.   

“There’s an opportunity to grow it much more efficiently, to grow it without any pesticides — to grow a clean, nutritious product,” he says.

He said over the past few years, when looking at the broader food industry, he came to believe that a core problem for food production is that field farmers are unable to control their environments. Since he does not come from a growing or horticulture background, Zelkind traveled the world with his business partner to understand different greenhouse types, growing methods and technology, including the LEDs that he uses in all of 80 Acres’ facilities.

“I’ve been watching farmers struggle for years,” he says. “I felt like there was a real need. The food that we eat is not the same quality as what we ate 20 or 30 years ago.”


A better way

Using the best possible technology available, including LEDs from Philips Lighting, is a key part of Zelkind’s business philosophy. Unlike some indoor farms that are focused on building a new growing system altogether, Zelkind sees 80 Acres finding success by using the best technology available for each part of the business. With that technology in place, the idea is to grow a variety of different crops consumers want. That includes vine crops and herbs in addition to greens and microgreens.

“We’re not just doing lettuce or microgreens,” he says.

Zelkind adds that technology is advancing to a point where it helps improve what 80 Acres does. For lighting, for instance, he says a number of different LED spectrums and fixture types were trialed for the different crops grown at 80 Acres before he and his team decided that the best option was to grow each type of crop with specific fixtures and light spectrums. So, in the 80 Acres systems, a vine crop like tomatoes will be grown under a different fixture and spectrum than leafy greens or herbs, to meet each crop’s individual needs.

The operation uses LED bulbs with fixed spectrums from Philips Lighting, as well as a few different fixtures types from Philips Lighting, depending on the crop. Zelkind says he knows he’s getting a dependable light source from Philips and knows he can trust their advice. He also says Philips’ variety of available light fixtures and spectrums make them the best fit for his business and a partner in his success.

“[They] have the deepest grow knowledge,” he says. “It’s a phenomenal company with tremendous experience and a great set of lights.”

In addition to growing technology, Zelkind says 80 Acres is staffed with experienced industry people. He says having people who are well-versed in all parts of the business — everything from growing, engineering, food safety and plant science to marketing, sales, operations and data science — with 10 or 20 years’ experience in food, is what it takes to be successful in this new industry. It also sets the 80 Acres Farms apart.

“We think that cracks the code of how to build a commercially viable farm,” he says.


Potential for growth

Currently, 80 Acres has farms in four different locations — Daphne, Alabama; Springdale, Arkansas; Granite Falls, North Carolina; and Cincinnati, Ohio — with plans for more facilities in the works. A lot of the company’s effort right now is expanding what crops it can grow well. Zelkind says 80 Acres has already successfully grown strawberries and hops in its facilities.

“The plan is to go way beyond lettuce,” he says.

Zelkind, though, does admit that there is still much to figure out before indoor farming becomes commercially viable. However, he does know that buying the right products – including the various LEDs he gets from Philips – are part of any realistic solution.

Growth for 80 Acres also involves scaling up farms over time at the right pace and in the right markets. In Ohio, for instance, a second facility near Cincinnati is being built to establish a regional hub. And when a new location is added, one or two modular farms are built to see how the location fares before a large amount of capital is invested.

“We’re in the first inning of the game,” he says.

As that happens, and the business grows, the goal remains the same.

“We want to provide, healthy, nutritious, local food,” he says. “And do so in a very sustainable way.”

Photo courtesy of Mike Zelkind

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