The Infinite Harvest conference-room table is spread with an array of microgreens, tiny leaves and fronds in many shades of purple and green. Paul Dominguez hands over a tuft of pale-yellow shoots, eyes gleaming as he asks a question: “Have you ever tasted popcorn shoots?”
I have not, I confess, and he grins. I nibble. The taste is intense, unleashing a rush of concentrated sweetness across the back of my tongue. It’s so thick and heady, I immediately think of a liqueur, and when the initial rush begins to dissipate, it leaves a buttery aftertaste almost like, yes, popcorn. He’s been showing this to chefs, Dominguez says, and watching them have a similar reaction. Restaurants are using the shoots on crab cakes and corn on the cob; bars are sprinkling them over drinks.
The shoots are just the beginning of the taste test. There’s a leaf that tastes like extra-concentrated celery, and another that’s a sharp hit of spicy mustard. Mini-shiso is vibrant purple; it packs a forceful punch of grass and anise, clarified by the laser focus of spearmint-like freshness. Micro-cilantro comes with the coriander seed still attached, Dominguez explains, because it imparts a nice textural crunch. As flavorful and fun as these microgreens are, though, Infinite Harvest’s lettuce is what really blows me away.
Dominguez presents it last, emphasizing its appearance before pulling off leaves to taste. Each head of Bibb is uniform, a vibrant kelly green, and so perfect it almost looks food-styled. The flavor is just what you want from Bibb: mild and slightly sweet, with a nice chew and refreshing, if subtle, crispness.
Nathan Lorne, Infinite Harvest’s operations manager, says the lettuce is what sold him on the company, back when he was working as the general manager at Trillium. “I remember explicitly the first time we got lettuce,” he recalls. “We opened up the box and pulled out the lettuce, and it was sort of an epiphany. It was early spring or the end of winter, and we pulled out this lettuce that was just so vibrant, everyone’s eyes lit up. We started eating it, and it was amazing. It had been harvested the same day.”
Dominguez was a cook working the lines at Acorn and Potager before he took a job at Infinite Harvest (he’s since moved on), showing off produce and explaining how Infinite Harvest turns out its uniform, flavorful crops year-round.
And it takes some explaining, because these crops aren’t grown in fields. They’re cultivated at a vertical farm inside a 5,400-square-foot warehouse off Sheridan Boulevard, just a few miles from downtown Denver. And Tommy Romano, the aerospace engineer who launched the complex, isn’t in the business just to provide high-end restaurants with superior microgreens: He believes Infinite Harvest is a gateway to the food of our future — especially if that future carries us far from Earth.
Romano has the optimistic enthusiasm of a curious child and the slightly chaotic intensity of someone who thinks about three times faster than the average human. He often seems mildly disheveled, like a favorite college professor. He grew up in Wisconsin and California, watching Star Wars and Star Trek and learning from a father who was interested in aerospace. “I knew I wanted to be an aerospace engineer when I was in fourth grade,” he recalls.
He got his undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering, then went to work in the private sector, for Lockheed Martin. When he returned to the University of Colorado Boulder for his graduate degree around the turn of the millennium, he specialized in the human physiology of space flight — “one of the key aspects to becoming an astronaut,” he says.
But he soon realized that he wasn’t going to become an astronaut, at least not with NASA. “I didn’t have the right credentials, and the selection process is extremely competitive,” he explains. That didn’t deter him, though: Romano began thinking about other ways to get to space that were just starting to pop up in the private sector. Visionaries such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos were beginning to hatch plans to build a space-exploration and -travel industry, and Romano wanted in.
While he was a master’s student, Romano did a project on bioastronautics, studying life support, space habitat design and how to keep humans happy and healthy for long durations in space. “I was in charge of coming up with food production on Mars that would last for two years,” he says. Because the distance and required volume makes it untenable, “we can’t ship food, so we would have to grow it, using minimal resources and regenerative systems that would minimize what we have to send over.” While researching a number of technologies that might allow that, he stumbled upon the idea of vertical farming.
At the time, vertical farming was more of an architectural concept, Romano says, and the term still describes any farm that’s built in layers — vertically — rather than spread horizontally across a field, as in traditional farming.
But while the term “vertical farming” has been in use for at least a century, the modern notion that we might be able to expand our food-growing capabilities upward rather than outward emerged less than two decades ago. In 1999, Dickson Despommier, emeritus professor of microbiology and public health at Columbia University, began advocating for skyscraper farms in urban centers as a way to feed a growing global population moving into cities. In Despommier’s vertical farms, each floor of a building would be dedicated to a different crop, and technology and monitoring would ensure that each crop received an ideal mix of nutrients, water and light. The strategy would save space, he argued, and the food supply would no longer be subject to unpredictable environmental elements — or the threat of a changing climate.
Making a vertical farm viable on such a massive scale would be a complicated undertaking. For starters, each crop has its own requirements for nutrients, sunlight and water, which would need to be created artificially. When Despommier first shared his vision, little data existed on the right mix for any plant, and gathering that information was not easy. Take light, for instance: Not only did scientists need information on how much sunlight a plant required, but they also needed to understand which wavelengths were essential to various growth phases and functions.
There were other hurdles, too. One of the easiest bases to use for a vertical farm is a hydroponic system, since water-based growing is already set up vertically. But while some crops grow just fine hydroponically, corn and other calorie-dense starches require a significant amount of energy and space, both above and below ground. Even if you could deal with the space issue, manufacturing enough energy would make the vertical farm significantly less efficient than growing crops in a field. It would have an enormous carbon footprint, and its output would be prohibitively expensive for consumers.
Still, Despommier’s idea fueled considerable technological experimentation, propelled by NASA estimates that our current farming system would require a land mass the size of South America to grow enough food for the globe — and if we expect to add three billion people in the next three and a half decades, we’re going to run out of space to feed ourselves. If we want to press on, we’ve got to press up.
Romano wasn’t particularly interested in building a skyscraper farm, and he was less concerned, at least initially, about future land scarcity on this planet. But he thought he could use Despommier’s idea as the basis for his project, which dovetailed nicely with what Despommier was proposing for vertical farming here on Earth. To grow food on Mars, Romano would need to create an environment that would mimic ideal growing conditions without relying on any traditional inputs like soil or sunlight, one that could be automated and controlled from afar. It would have to be a closed-loop system; pumping in massive amounts of water or electricity simply wasn’t an option in space.
As Romano dug deeper into his research, though, he realized that such a system would also have benefits on Earth, particularly in regions dealing with a natural disaster or experiencing famine. “This idea of fully controlled environmental, sustained agriculture — if it can work on Mars, why not do it here on Earth and eliminate a lot of those risks, and improve quality of fresh food to the masses?” he asked. He began thinking about what it would take to actually build a prototype.
Unfortunately, in 2002 and 2003, when Romano was completing his master’s project, technology had not yet caught up with theory. “I started looking at the technologies that I would need to leverage to make business viable, and they were in their infancies,” he says, citing LED lights, solar rays and wind turbines as examples. So he shelved the idea and went to work in the aerospace industry.
But in 2009, he took another look. “I had a chance to re-evaluate that business model, and I saw LED and renewable-energy technologies were advancing,” Romano says. “They weren’t there yet, but they had advanced enough to put together a hard business plan.”
He spent the next two years researching LEDs and hydroponics while building systems from customized versions of both and testing ideas in his basement. He successfully grew several crops, proving out the technology. In 2011, Romano got a land grant from the City of Golden, where he tested the entire system using renewable energy. “I put a forty-foot shipping container in an unimproved field and built it out as a self-contained, off-grid vertical farm. I got two kilowatts of power from solar panels and one kilowatt from wind, and I grew lettuce for a year. It was proof of concept, and that enabled us to approach angel investors here in Denver to find a more fixed-facility warehouse.”
He began tapping former aerospace-engineering colleagues, technology investors and rare-earth mining experts, who all had an interest in vertical farming.
“I was a little skeptical on the front end,” says Mark Smith, who today is Infinite Harvest’s chairman of the board and single biggest shareholder. Smith works in mining, but he got his degree in agricultural engineering, and agriculture is one of his primary interests. “It took us eighteen months,” he recalls, “and then I said, ‘I think you’ve got something profitable that can make a difference in the world.’ It’s a good business case: Other than two months of the year, all of our fruits and vegetables are trucked in from Mexico and California. They get beat up in these trucks, and when they get to the store, the store throws away 40 to 60 percent of that produce because it’s rotten. This way, we end up saving water, saving fertilizer, and making the system more efficient.”
In July 2014, Romano began building out a warehouse in Lakewood. He started small, outfitting just 10 percent of the space, intent on perfecting his custom-built technology before expanding. He also wanted to find a revenue stream before going much further, and that meant raising a crop that could be harvested and sold. So the early version of his farm focused not just on raising a variety of lettuces and herbs, but also on making those herbs as tasty as possible — and he did that by collecting data on how lights, temperature, humidity and nutrients get a plant’s flavor exactly right, then applying that to his output.
“Hot climate concentrates sugar and activates oils that make things bitter,” Dominguez explains. “We can nail in the environment here. You want something a little different? Spicier? Just turn a knob. That’s the capability.”
Because they’re grown indoors, Infinite Harvest’s crops aren’t subject to the elements: There’s no sun to scorch leaves, there are no pests to chew holes — and because of that, there’s no need to even think about pesticides. All crops are grown from organic, non-genetically modified seeds. (They can’t, however, be classified as officially organic, Romano says, partially because organic standards have yet to be written for crops that aren’t grown in soil.) Because Infinite Harvest can deliver products to restaurants the day they’re harvested, and because of the tight control over quality, its products also have a longer shelf life than crops shipped in from afar, which might have been too wet or too dry during transport.
Winning over Denver’s culinary community was Infinite Harvest’s market-entry strategy. At the end of 2014, the farm went live with its first crops, selling greens and herbs to a few restaurants.
“I really, really like the product,” says Jax executive chef Sheila Lucero, who uses the Bibb in her salads and the microgreens on multiple dishes. “The quality has always been great, the flavor is great, and it has a really extensive shelf life. The shelf life is a lot longer because [the greens] come in super-fresh, when they’re still living. When you get basil in a bag, it’s often discolored or overly damp, so you have to baby it a little more. This has a resiliency that we love. It means there’s no waste.”
And Kade Gianinetti, who uses the greens at both the Way Back and American Grind, considers Infinite Harvest’s crops to be top of the line. “The quality is awesome, the price point is really competitive, and to have an option for greens year-round that are high-quality and local is great,” he says.
As Infinite Harvest tweaked its technology, the market continued to grow. “It was well received,” says Romano. “Chefs wanted more. More variety. Basil, Bibb lettuce, mixed greens and kale.”
Demand was strong enough to raise a second round of funding to build out the complete facility. Romano was ready to standardize his systems so that they could be automated, replicated and scaled.
By his own account, Jim Romano is not particularly verbose. But Tommy Romano’s brother is good with construction, automotive repair and landscape irrigation, which made him an invaluable asset when the time came to bring the larger Infinite Harvest vision to life. “I have a very strong engineering design characteristic; he has a very hands-on, ‘you design it, I can build it’ sense,” Tommy Romano says of Jim. “We play off each other in that respect very well. If I can dream it, he can figure out how to build it.”
That’s a nice change, he adds, from the brothers’ younger days, when they were “way opposites.”
Now his job, Jim explains, is to make his brother’s “one-off concept” a reality. “What we need to do, and are trying to do, is create the ideal environment [for the plant] as a whole,” he says, “from the water source and water quality to proper lighting and proper relative humidity, regardless of what’s happening outside.”
In a hydroponic system, water delivers nutrients to plants rather than to soil. To tweak the concept, Jim’s water system pushes city water through reverse osmosis and UV filtration, then adds a mix of nutrients that are ideally suited to the plant that the water will eventually reach. That same system recycles the water, adjusting it each time it passes through the cycle so that it can be used again; the only water he loses, Jim says, is the small amount that evaporates and the water that actually goes to the plants.
According to Tommy Romano, Infinite Harvest uses less than 10 percent of the water used by a traditional farm to get the same yield — and the yields are significantly higher by square foot, not only because Infinite Harvest can grow all year, but also because it’s working in cubic feet, stacking many times the crops in the same area.
Jim’s air-monitoring system checks factors like temperature and humidity of the vertical farm, and manages the HVAC system by opening or closing vents and turning on fans or dehumidifiers as needed. His lights change throughout the day — not just to provide the wavelengths that crops like best, but to mimic an actual day.
Most important for Romano’s long-term goal of taking this system into space is that all environmental control is automated via a building-management system that continually takes stock of the situation and monitors itself according to human-set parameters. “The system is zoned to run through everything all the time,” says Jim. “The system can be tailor-made to what you want to grow. Do you want to grow a leafy green or a fruiting vegetable? The system has to have some type of variation because of different needs.”
The result of all Jim Romano’s tinkering is a farm that looks like a biology lab. The cavernous warehouse, sealed from the outside world by a two-doored chamber, is flooded with pinkish-purple light set at a wavelength that momentarily disorients and mars perception of other colors. The space is filled from wall to wall with what look like library stacks built from steel rods and plastic piping, reaching from the floor to eighteen-foot-high ceilings, threaded with wires and lit by thousands of LED bulbs. These structures house trays that hold leafy plants at various stages of development. A walled corner contains bulky equipment that can precisely calibrate the nutrient and mineral content of piped-in water.
The space is immaculate, free of dust and dirt. The employees are all clad in coats and hairnets; they tend to these trays with the precision of surgeons, moving around the space via mechanical lifts and examining dials and gauges in addition to the plants themselves.
The setup has enabled the farm to vastly grow its market for greens. Nathan Lorne came on to handle direct sales, which he did until Infinite Harvest was selling to 45 restaurants and self-distribution became difficult to manage. He moved to his operations-management role when the company negotiated a distribution deal with Shamrock Foods, which sells to local restaurants along the Front Range. From this revenue stream alone, Romano says, his company — despite the fact that it’s unsubsidized by the government and employs high-skilled and high-salaried laborers — will become profitable in the first quarter of this year. But there was one loss: Since Shamrock wanted a local Bibb and microgreens purveyor, Infinite Harvest had to cut back on other crops it was trying, like arugula and kale, in order to meet the demand.
Working with Shamrock also opened up the possibility of adding satellite sites in other markets: Infinite Harvest could build out a warehouse in Phoenix, for instance, and become a local purveyor there. But ultimately, Romano isn’t interested in having a local farm in every city in the country. “We’re a technology firm that also has an arm that grows fresh produce for the local market,” he explains.
This year, Infinite Harvest will start licensing its technology to other growers while it continues to improve that technology so that it can be controlled off-site from planting to harvest. “The next hurdle is going to be scalability,” says Romano. “How can you replicate the operation? The design is centered around a computer farmer rather than having a farmer person managing the crops. It’s a lot harder to duplicate that person’s knowledge and transport it to some remote location — so the knowledge of healthy plants is embedded in the computer system. Now it’s about how to efficiently expand into other areas and repeat the grow performance in other areas.”
To do that, Jim says, they’ll need to home in on exactly what each plant needs, and to make very small tweaks to the environment via the building-management system. “The coolest thing about a hydroponics system is that we have an unlimited amount of control, so any particular necessity can be emulated,” he notes. “How a plant grows in nature — in a particular soil, with particular minerals in said soil, with a particular atmosphere — we can emulate that. We can ask, what makes that plant better? A little more of one mineral? Sunlight? A warmer temperature? A cooler temperature? We can tweak once we learn those things — it’s data entry.”
Stressing that they’re still collecting much of that data, Romano points to the LED lights. “These LED lights were scratch-built in the basement,” he says. “We’re in our sixth, going on seventh revision. They’re designed to provide the specific light wavelengths that are used in photosynthesis — red and blue. But there’s new research that says there are other benefits of other colors. We’re working with our supplier to incorporate those types of things. We build the building blocks up, and then we tweak the system from what we’ve learned.”
Meanwhile, Jim is also refining the way the system uses energy, taking it further off the grid. “One of the main reasons that I’m involved is that I want to see these systems go off-grid 100 percent,” he says, and that means not only harnessing energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources, but capturing energy produced by the farm and putting it to work. Adding to the challenge is that those energy systems will need to generate the same amount of power in vastly different environments; a vertical farm in northern Canada will necessarily draw from different sources of energy than one in the middle of a desert.
And then the company will need to further automate some of the processes that still require a human touch. “Seeding, harvesting, monitoring — that’s the next level of automation,” says Romano. “But if you’re automating an inefficient system, you’ll have an automated inefficient process. You have to make sure your system is already efficient — that’s why we haven’t done a lot of that labor automation yet.”
The immediate payoff for all that streamlining is consistency: “You know you’re going to get a healthy plant in July, and you can repeat that in December,” says Romano. “It’s a reliable and consistent supply, which is what the market is looking for. Traditional farming can’t provide that.”
The broader implication is farther-reaching: If Infinite Harvest can build a self-contained farm that can be completely managed from afar, there’s no limit to where it can grow food. It can license its technology to would-be urban farmers across the country and help those farmers manage what they’re growing, thereby making major headway on Despommier’s vision for vertical farms to feed urban centers. And while Mars may be the ultimate goal, the team could also drop a shipping-container farm in a famine-stricken area, providing a sustainable source of fresh produce in places where the need is dire.
“Growing plants under lights doesn’t interest me,” says Rodger Cree, an Infinite Harvest investor and boardmember who is also an aerospace engineer. “But there are so many applications for this. You remove the specialization from it. You can design based on space, reducing your overall consumption footprint. You can put a container in Darfur, and you don’t need a specialist to grow food. You can monitor it through satellite link. You can do crop production for major cities.”
Infinite Harvest’s team and investors believe their technology has the potential to shore up a food supply under threat from climate change and population strain and revolutionize farming across the globe. And that technology is what they plan to sell.
Infinite Harvest is not the only company pushing closed-loop vertical farms. There are more — and while Romano dismisses the “off-the-shelf systems” of some of them, others are large, well-funded and ambitious.
Infinite Harvest faces competition from ventures like AeroFarms, a Newark-based enterprise that raises leafy greens and herbs via a patented aeroponics system and sells them to high-end New York restaurants, corporate cafeterias and a few retailers. There’s also Boston-based Freight Farms, which outfits freight containers with hydroponic farms that can be monitored with a smartphone app. These growers make similar claims regarding yield potential and water conservation; AeroFarms recently told the New Yorker that it believes it’s years ahead of the competition when it comes to technology.
Infinite Harvest is not even the only company that wants to grow food on Mars. In fact, says Even Pay, a China-based agricultural technology consultant who grew up in South Dakota, any company in this field that takes technology seriously is at least half-contemplating cultivating vegetables in space.
Pay consulted for one such company, Alesca Life, which launched in China and builds farms in shipping containers. The company is currently working in the United Arab Emirates under a program designed to secure a food supply for the region.
Asia is particularly ripe for vertical-farming endeavors, she says, because a number of factors threaten its food security. Japan’s government — facing an aging population, shrinking farmland and a declining number of farmers — subsidized vertical farms as a way to use empty technology-factory space after that country’s economic downturn. While many of those farms have struggled to continue after official support dried up, much of the thought leadership on the subject continues to come out of that country. Singapore, a densely populated city-state with a wealthy population and little land mass, is home to Sky Greens, a vertical farm that produces one ton of vegetables every other day. And China, says Pay, has gotten into the game not only because it’s dealing with water scarcity, population strain and food-safety threats, but also because the country manufactures many of the materials that go into building these systems — so entrepreneurs there can easily tweak designs by working directly with the fabricators.
She sees vertical farming as falling under an umbrella of precision agriculture that encompasses “anything where you are using data tools to have a more complete understanding of what’s happening in agricultural production,” she says. “Technology has progressed, and it’s possible to get data on a plant-by-plant or rack-by-rack basis. These are not very clearly understood opportunities. We’re at the very beginning of understanding moment-to-moment growth of plants.”
And that’s where data collection comes in. “Vertical farming is interesting and important because it’s gathering the most data on a plant-by-plant basis on anything not in a lab,” Pay continues. “A lot of businesses will talk to you about asking the plant what it wants. It’s not just about programming an algorithm, it’s also about yield levels. Every input is about more nutrients. It’s energy-intensive, but it’s much simpler than breeding or gene editing.”
That doesn’t mean that vertical farming is ready for a big cash harvest, however. “As of this point, vertical farming is a good way to produce nutrients, but it’s not the greatest way to produce calories,” Pay points out. “Experts worldwide are working to see how that can be changed. It’s been pretty game-changing for certain categories, like leafy greens and tomatoes. But when you’re talking about feeding the world, you’re not talking about nutrition, you’re talking about calories, and there are some hurdles there. Calorie-dense crops like grains or tubers are still better off in a different growing context.”
Romano counters that the only reason he’s not growing those crops right now is because it’s too expensive for our current agricultural-supply system — not because it’s impossible. “Most of the vertical farms that started within the last three or four years grow leafy greens,” he notes. “It’s low-hanging fruit; it’s easy to grow, a standard staple in any market and requires no pollination. A few are reaching out into fruiting plants like tomatoes, and we have plans to start getting into that as well. But because of the complex control of the system and our tight parameters, we believe we can push that beyond hydroponic crops. One of the very early-stage basement grow tests was Olathe sweet corn, which we grew successfully. From a business standpoint, does that make sense? No, corn is a commodity crop, so we can’t compete on pricing. It was more to demonstrate how crazy we can get. It’s been seven years since we did that crop; I think we could push it even further now.”
Romano believes that necessity may someday push vertical farmers into all crops, and he wants to be prepared for that possibility. “As population grows and strains production capability on current suppliers, it may drive prices high enough that it makes economic business sense to grow out of this kind of facility,” he says. “It’s a little bit like, do I pump this oil well at $50 a barrel, or do I have to wait until it’s $100 a barrel? When does market demand that kind of a push? I think the industry will start doing those things when the market demands it. Companies that have prepped will be in a good position.”
Smith, Infinite Harvest’s board chair, wants the company to shoot for the moon — if not Mars. “There are two types of people: Those who say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and those who say there’s gotta be a better way, let’s find it,” he says. “We’re both in that second category. We’re working to improve every day.”
I leave Infinite Harvest with a couple of clamshells of perfect Bibb, which I make into a salad at home. Now that you can buy just about any variety of lettuce imaginable at your local grocery store, a salad in winter isn’t such a novelty — but lettuce this good is.
“This will change the way you think about produce supply,” says operations manager Lorne. “Historically, you had to account for season, climate — was there a drought or a flood? With us, it’s what do you want and when. Tomatoes in January? We can do that, and they’ll be the same as what you’ll get in June or August.”
That makes me wonder if vertical farms could ever duplicate the emotional flavor of traditional agriculture: Infinite Harvest can’t exactly replicate the warm tomatoes you get in August, plucked straight from the vine and smudged with dirt. How do ventures like Infinite Harvest entice consumers who’ve spent the last several years getting to know their farmers?
Pay agrees that this technology might have a perception problem. Because vertically farmed products are often priced in line with organics or more sustainably grown crops, “you’re dependent on consumers who are really conscious of what they’re buying, and they’re often looking for a more traditional farm,” she says. “It’s lab coats versus coveralls. If you work in a pristine, no-chemicals indoor farm in a controlled environment, it doesn’t hit that sweet spot that the local organic farm that looks more traditional is going to hit. You go to the farmers’ market and their [product] has soil on it, and yours is vacuum-sealed.”
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But Lorne says he hasn’t encountered that pushback, at least not on a major scale. “I believe in that romance all day long,” he says. “But I haven’t seen hurdles in the market from the end user. It’s the inverse: There’s interest in what the future is. There’s interest in getting consistent local product and not dealing with drought in California or hail damage. For chefs, consistency is the number-one job in the kitchen. I’ve seen our end-users latch onto that.”
And consistency is what could take Infinite Harvest to Mars. Tommy Romano hasn’t given up that goal: “I’d like to talk to Elon Musk,” he says.
In the meantime, there’s plenty to do here on Earth. “We need all the tech we can get,” says Smith. “The sooner we can do this, the better.”