Business

Smith Family Greens Adds to Denver's Vertical Farm Movement

The Smith Family Greens farm grows up instead of out.
The Smith Family Greens farm grows up instead of out. Claire Duncombe
Sometimes greenhouses aren’t as efficient as you would think, says Brian Smith. And after five years of working in one, Smith thought he could do better. So he started looking up.

Smith Family Greens is a vertical farm that specializes in soon-to-be-certified organic microgreens for sale to restaurant distributors. The space, which holds 8,000 square feet of growing surfaces, is a fully sealed environment made specifically for micro-greens, arugula and kale. Smith believes that the sustainable model is not only better for the environment, but also helps cut costs and keeps the product safe from contamination.

It’s a farm without a horizon, a small world of its own reaching toward the ceiling. The room hums with lights, fans and water purifiers. There’s a slight humidity from the hundreds of leafy vegetables that grow row after row in a high-rise made for plants. The greens, nestled in organic soil, are held in styrofoam seed trays that float in nutrient-infused water bays.

click to enlarge The family plans to sell the greens to restaurant distributors and hopes to make the organic micoogreens affordable. - CLAIRE DUNCOMBE
The family plans to sell the greens to restaurant distributors and hopes to make the organic micoogreens affordable.
Claire Duncombe
The Smiths built the farm on a budget, sourcing used pallet racks to create the vertical structure and baker’s racks to hold the seedling trays while they germinate. Smith points out the reflective material that lines the “roof” of each vertical layer, which extends the efficiency of the full-spectrum LED lighting. As a former sailmaker, Smith sewed the liners himself.

Before settling in Denver, Smith raced sailboats all over the world. During that time, he “really started to recognize the effect of plastic on the ocean,” he says. And although he doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist, he wants to teach his four kids that the things people do today have an impact on the future. “This world is a gift. It’s not ours,” he adds.

Plus, Smith is proud of how environmental sustainability can pair with affordability. Unlike a greenhouse, the 1,000-square-foot vertical farm don’t have to be heated in cold weather. All of the air is circulated, filtered and reused within the room’s micro-climate. He describes the circular movement of air like a water-cycle diagram from a science class, explaining how the air changes purpose each step of the way.

click to enlarge Once planted, the greens stay in these trays their entire life as a way to minimize labor and risk for contamination. - CLAIRE DUNCOMBE
Once planted, the greens stay in these trays their entire life as a way to minimize labor and risk for contamination.
Claire Duncombe
There’s a CO2-bearing hose woven into each vertical level that “rains over the crops where needed,” he explains. And as the heat and humidity rise from the transpiring plants, they reach a ceiling dehumidifier and then get pulled back toward an air conditioner by fans.

Nothing is wasted — not even the leftover soil and roots from harvested greens, which will be composted. And one day, Smith hopes to install solar panels on the roof. The efficiency of the system keeps costs down, so Smith Family Greens can charge less for produce, something Smith hopes will benefit both restaurants and consumers.

For now, he's planning to work with distributors like What Chefs Want!, Packed Produce and Growers Organic to make an easy distribution cycle between the farm and restaurants.

The Smith family is striving to create closed-system growth that cultivates healthy, safe produce for all involved — “great local food for an affordable price,” Smith says.
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Claire Duncombe is a Denver-based freelance writer who covers the environment, agriculture, food, music, the arts and other subjects.
Contact: Claire Duncombe