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The Pinke Post: Vertical farms have nowhere to go but up

What is vertical farming? It is an agricultural practice of vertically growing food on an inclined surface. I have heard the term and considered vertical farming more for urban populations and city centers.

But to get a look at vertical farming I didn't travel to a city. Instead, my AgweekTV colleague and I went to New London, Minn., pulled off a rural road and, in between corn and soybean fields, walked into what once was an empty pole building.

Today the building is home to 180 acres of vertical lettuce farming and headquarters of Lettuce Abound.

Lettuce Abound Farms grows seven varieties of lettuce along with basil. They produce inside, using no natural sunlight and just 4% of the water typically used in lettuce farming, according to Lettuce Abound founder and CEO Kevin Ortenblad.

Kevin gave a tour to a group of Minnesota Farm Service Agency managers and I was able to join. "This is a great way to grow food, and I think this is the farm of the future."

After seeing Lettuce Abound's facility I have a clearer vision of how it can grow and supplement established farms and create opportunities for a vertical farm to pop up anywhere globally. Ortenblad once was a corn and soybean farmer, but no more. "We are the only aeroponic organic facility, so we did the trial and error method, which is very painful and it takes a long time," he said

I also appreciate the ingenuity and vision many farmers have to step out and find a new way, a different path in agriculture. I think Ortenblad and his family working alongside him are those types of farmers.

Lettuce Abound Farms is harvesting 2,000 heads of lettuce a week and distributing across Minnesota and now into Hornbacher's grocery stores in North Dakota. It's better than any lettuce I've grown or purchased recently.

There are empty buildings and warehouses everywhere that could become home to vertical farming, bringing fresh produce to areas often labeled as "food deserts," areas where it is difficult to access fresh, quality food. "It's something that can be taken anywhere that it wants to go to. Instead of I don't have any land here, I can't farm. Well, you can build a building." Ortenblad said.

Of course, it takes capital to make it happen. I learned on the tour that vertical farms like Lettuce Abound are not classified as a farm because they are not farming 10 or more acres of tillable land, limiting the farm programs or loans they could qualify for. Can this change? I hope so.

We need all kinds of farms to feed a booming global population. With more people, there is less land to farm. Vertical farms are a part of a bigger solution for agriculture. I am grateful for farmers in Mexico, South America and the "smile of the United States," California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and across to Florida, who provide fresh produce when it can't be grown in the Upper Midwest.

But Lettuce Abound Farms is changing that. Fresh lettuce from central Minnesota in the dead of winter is a reality.

I hope to see more vertical farms get established and grow from our rural areas to urban centers.