Feb. 21β€”In a small town in Kansas, two inventors are experimenting with a new way of growing food, which they believe could change farming in Kansas and the Midwest.

The duo, David Hinson and Lenny Geist, are using a combination of technologies β€” solar power, battery storage and rain barrels β€” to power their massive greenhouses, which will grow fruits, vegetables and feed for livestock.

Farmers have used greenhouses before, but not on this scale. Their initial plan is to farm up to 12 acres of land under glass. They hope to expand to hundreds of acres, once they raise more money.

Hinson has a patent on a solar panel design that's built into the greenhouse structure and will be able to manage the daily light and shade needed for each type of crop and supply all the energy the greenhouse needs. He also hopes his solar greenhouses can create enough excess energy to power a 5G data center, bringing rural Kansans that much closer to high-speed internet.

The first of its kind

Needing a lot near a highway and with good access to nearby cities, the project landed in Marquette, Kansas, a small town of 682, located between McPherson and Salina. Marquette doesn't have a school, but it offers The Kansas Motorcycle Museum and The Washington Street Historic District, the main street and downtown area.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, nearly every building on Marquette's four-block long main street was closed, some because of the COVID-19 pandemic and others without a listed reason. The main street windows were dotted with red, white and blue Marquette community pride signs recognizing the local farming, grocery and emergency services industries.

Open was a grocery store, restaurant, a hardware store, a distillery, an art gallery and City Sundries, an ice cream shop and the local place-to-be. A dozen men, most wearing overalls, sat around drinking coffee while a few children wandered in and out purchasing candy.

It was here, in City Sundries, where Lenny Geist, of Kansas Freedom Farms, animatedly described the future possibilities of this small town, where he and his partner, David Hinson, have started building a solar-powered greenhouse farm.

Geist and Hinson have been working on the project together for four years. They met each other in Phoenix, Arizona, while working out at the same Planet Fitness and bonded over their Kansas university rivalries, having graduated from the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, respectively.

Hinson, a trained electrical engineer, found a partner with Geist, who as one trained in media, journalism and marketing might, is able to convey his idea to the public.

In City Sundries, Geist talked using buzzwords, praising the sites' ability to grow 100% natural food without the use of pesticides and the plan to supply local restaurants, like City Sundries, grocery stores, the nearby school district and residents with quality food grown locally.

As the site grows, Geist expects their service area to expand farther out as well, and he speaks animatedly about the future of the site, which sits in the shadow of Marquette's grain elevator, a clear image of "future versus past" industry, side by side.

A better growing process

Hinson has designed a "Venetian blinds" solar panel system, where a software program will adjust the panels to customize the temperature and amount of sunlight the plants will receive based on what they need to grow, similar to the way Venetian blinds can be adjusted to change the amount of light in a room. The program can adjust the panels for the needs of different crops in different sectors of the greenhouse. Hinson received a patent for his solar tracking system in November 2016, according to tsogreenhouses.com.

The solar panels will face the east when the sun comes up and then rotate tracking the sun using a special algorithm, Geist said. Then, when it's hailing, snowing or nighttime, those solar panels will flip inward and face inside the greenhouse and the metal back will face the sky.

The solar panels power LED lights that at night and on gray winter days will give plants the necessary amount of light they need to keep growing. In turn, this can shorten the growing schedule and allow producers to grow 10 to 12 rotations of crops a year, instead of two or three.

"As the LED lights kick on in the greenhouse, those solar panels will absorb the LED light so it's effectively recycling the same energy they already produced," Geist added.

The site will have a recycled system of water and use rain barrels, so it won't be reliant on groundwater or city water, furthering the greenhouses' independence from utilities.

Nathan Eyelands, a graduate student of integrated agriculture at Cornell University, is working as a consultant on the project with Geist and Hinson and studies greenhouse growing, or as those in the industry call it, 'growing under glass.'

Growing under glass has many benefits, as farmers can grow nearly five times more crops per acre and the carbon footprint is reduced as farmers use less water, fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides.

Additionally, the conditions inside greenhouses will be less affected by conditions caused by climate change and, with the net-zero carbon footprint of Hinson's design, the sites won't cause emissions that contribute to climate change.

"You're growing a crop faster, you're growing year-round, and you're using about 10% of the water use that a traditional field farm would use," Eyelands said. "In the Central Valley of California, they might at a maximum get two crop turns in a year. Whereas in a greenhouse, you're growing plants every 35 days, so you're getting maybe 10 or 11 crop turns in a year."

One problem with "growing under glass" is the high energy cost and light pollution that comes from using the lights to grow crops at night or during the winter, when the crops wouldn't be getting enough "natural sun" to grow, according to Eyelands. Neighbors often complain of the "glow" from the LED lights. And it's a major use of power.

But Geist and Hinson hope to mitigate this problem, by using solar panels that flip to face inside the greenhouse during these times when the lights are on. The backside of the solar panels block the light, reducing the glow that can be seen on the outside, similar to pulling Venetian blinds closed. Flipping also allows the solar panels to suck energy from the LED lights, recycling some of that energy back into their system.

The solar panels also will add another layer between the cold winter air and the plants, giving them further protection.

"So not only is he not allowing that light pollution to go out, but he's also going to create a layer of insulation in wintertime, when you need a little extra layer of insulation," Eyeland said.

Grown in Kansas, not California

Their biggest selling point is to be able to grow fresh fruits and vegetables in Kansas that are usually grown in California, Mexico or South America, where the food must be picked early for a one to two week transit, which lowers quality making it taste bad, according to Geist.

"We in the Midwest need to figure out how to grow our own food...and become less reliant on the West Coast, Mexico and South America," Geist added.

In urban areas, these greenhouses can and do work, but rural areas have a distinct edge, according to Geist. In urban areas, the land, water, space and electricity needed are all far more expensive. The site in Marquette, where they were given 12 acres, will be able to produce its own power.

"The good thing about coming out to rural Kansas is there is land everywhere, and it's cheap," Geist said.

While Kansas is known for growing wheat, don't expect to see any growing under glass anytime soon. However, researchers have found that other crops like lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers grown under glass are better quality and better nutrition, according to Eyelands.

"Cereal crops are not viable to do in a greenhouse, just because of the scale that you need and the labor that it would cost," Eyelands said. "A loaf of bread would be very expensive if we're growing in a greenhouse."

The future of farming

The first unit will be completed later in April or May, and will have two levels with 3800 square feet on both, according to Geist.

They will begin growing in summer, starting with tomatoes and leafy greens, harvest in August and then begin a full growing schedule. The site will start with two employees and expand to four or five.

Geist estimates they will need 10 employees per acre, meaning once all 60 units in the 12 acres are up and running, they will have 120 to 125 full-time employees. Other units will have up to three floors where crops can be grown. On lower levels, they can grow crops that need less light, like mushrooms or hemp.

Expanding to other counties

The main problem so far is getting enough capital to pursue their projects, but Geist said he hopes that after this initial project grows and they prove themselves, that will change.

Representatives from three Kansas counties have begun looking at the process but are still learning more about it before they can commit.

Chad Buckley, of Rice County and Lyons, Kansas, has been meeting with agriculture leaders, farmers and investors and said he is energized by the prospect of adding jobs to rural communities. Buckley said farmers expressed interest and were excited to imagine a farming future without worrying about flooding or hail storms wrecking crops.

"Small towns need as much help as they can to create jobs and there's no downsides to this project," Buckley said. "A greenhouse is a safe place to produce anything."

In Rice County, the major roadblock is finding a good spot that is both near a highway, so they can sell their crops directly to consumers like at a farmer's market, and large enough where they can grow over time, according to Buckley.

The new 'center' of rural communities

Geist sees the greenhouse sites becoming the hub and spoke for rural counties, and will have 5G Network antennas, that will be a transmitter for wireless 5G internet. The hardware will run on solar energy.

Currently, 5G needs three structures every mile, so to boost and carry this signal, these sites will invest in putting antennas on three structures every mile, placing small solar panels on the antennas that don't have access to electricity.

This can be done smartly using silos, bridges and other structures already in existence, Geist said, which also will help farmers have access to 5G to assist with precision agriculture and monitoring the commodity marketing to buy, sell and trade in real time to maximize their profits.

(c)2021 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

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