Green Sense Farms Aims to Change How Produce is Grown, Distributed

Green Sense Farms is on a mission to build the country’s largest network of tech-enabled, indoor vertical farms.

To help it get there, the Portage, IN-based company has turned to a new mechanism for raising capital—equity crowdfunding, which allows companies to sell small stakes in their businesses to the general public. With four days left in its crowdfunding campaign, Green Sense has already raised more than $400,000 on StartEngine, surpassing its minimum goal of $100,000. The funds will help the company install these indoor gardens at large grocery stores, college campuses, corporate offices, hospitals, and wherever large volumes of meals are served daily.

“For good ideas to come to fruition, they have to make economic sense,” says Robert Colangelo, founder and CEO of Green Sense. “My philosophy is to create market-based solutions. Lettuce is 90 percent water—why ship it when you can grow it at the point of purchase instead?”

According to a 2015 United Nations report, the size of the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050. As the population increases, the amount of arable land available for agricultural use decreases—and 80 percent of the world’s arable land is already in use. Other environmental stressors, like climate change and pollution, further reduce the natural resources available to grow food commercially. All of these forces combined result in an urgent global need for more sustainable farming practices, Colangelo says.

Green Sense grows produce indoors on multi-level stacked shelves, which Colangelo says drastically reduces land use and has minimal impact to the environment. The Green Sense method involves growing produce in coconut core husks instead of soil. Water and a fertilizer mix are applied to the plants and, thanks to a drain, constantly recycled and re-used. This process allows the vegetables to grow faster than they would in the field, with less water and without pesticides, herbicides, or genetically modified materials, Colangelo explains. Crops grown by Green Sense include microgreens, lettuces, baby greens, culinary herbs, and baby bok choy.

By growing produce indoors and harvesting year-round, Green Sense is trying to transform the way produce is distributed, Colangelo says. “Now that we have the technology to put farms anywhere, we can locate them at or near produce distribution centers or institutional campuses,” he adds. “It cuts out the middle man and ensures produce is always locally grown and fresh.”

Colangelo isn’t the only one who sees a big opportunity with indoor vertical farming. Other companies in this emerging field include Freight Farms in Boston; Green Spirit Farms, based in New Buffalo, MI; and Alegría Fresh in Irvine, CA. The question now is whether Green Sense and its competitors can gain wide acceptance of their alternative farming methods and grow profitable businesses.

Green Sense designs, builds, and manages the farms for its customers. The automated, climate-controlled growing systems can be run from a smartphone. Sensors and monitors track water and nutrients, and, if there’s a problem, “an alarm goes off and we intervene,” Colangelo says. The cost for building a 20,000- square-foot garden, like the one that will soon be constructed at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, is roughly $3 million.

Green Sense established its first farm in Portage, and the second one in China, where Colangelo sees a huge opportunity. In China, farm land is in short supply, and pollution has tainted lakes, rivers, and aquifers. In addition to those environmental challenges, it also has more than a billion people to feed—the perfect market forces, he says, for a growing system like the one offered by Green Sense.

The company employs 15 people in Portage, 20 in China, and will soon add another 15 workers to manage the Ivy Tech farm. So far, Colangelo says, the company has been funded through revenue from customers and outside grants, including a tax credit from the state of Indiana.

Green Sense expects to launch three more farms in the next 12 to 36 months, Colangelo says. The company’s long-term goal is to spin off a “biopharma and super food” division that synthesizes plant enzymes and proteins for use in medicine.

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