This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
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Before Utah’s searing, mega-drought summer, came the winter storm of 2021. In February tornadoes and ice storms swept across the nation causing massive damage. Hardest hit was Texas, where millions lost power, over 200 people died and economic damage exceeded $195 billion.
Agriculture saw devastated crops and livestock killed in massive numbers. Some family farmers even brought their livestock indoors to sit by the fire so they wouldn’t freeze to death.
It wasn’t just small farmers who got the idea, though.
“One of our clients is the owner of a big cattle ranch outside of Amarillo,” said Steve Lindsley, president of Grōv Technologies, a sustainable agriculture startup based in Vineyard, Utah. “He lost half his herd in that storm. He said he knew he had to go indoors. ‘If I can’t keep my animals healthy and safe in Texas anymore, I can’t do it anywhere.’”
Whether freak winter storms or endless heat waves, climate change is forcing agriculture to evolve. As an energy and water-intensive industry and a major producer of greenhouse gasses, most climate experts agree that evolution is a necessity.
At Utah’s largest dairy farm on the west side of Utah Lake, Grōv Technologies wants to demonstrate that it is possible to feed a hungry planet and fight climate change.
“Five hundred acres of food, on a third of an acre, using 5% of the water,” explains Lindsley, “that’s the story, but it’s just the beginning.”
Growing grass on Mount Olympus
If you’ve seen 1999′s “The Matrix,” walking into Grōv Technologies’ Elberta, Utah facility and meeting the towers might give you deja vu. Unlike in the film, this deja vu is nothing to worry about.
The technologies behind Grōv are the twinned Olympus farms: two-story cylinders that slowly but steadily rotate squares of wheat or barley grass through a rapid growth cycle — from seed to feed in seven days.
At one end of the first tower, a robotic dispenser fills a new 2-foot planter square with seed every four minutes with mesmerizing efficiency. That square will then slowly follow the track up the first tower, where it is flooded in shallow water, fed nutrients and builds a dense mat of root bed as it germinates.
Rotating into the second tower, it is bathed in LED grow lights, powerful enough to produce rapid growth but so efficient they are cool to the touch.
Finally, as the square of wheat grass reaches the bottom of the second tower, it is dumped without ceremony onto a conveyor belt, which carries it on its brief journey through the indoor farm to a delivery truck. When full, the vehicle will make a half-mile journey up the dirt road to where 7,500 dairy cows await the next shipment of fresh feed.
“With this system,” explains Lindsley, “we feed the cows fresh nutritious grass year-round, grown without pesticides, and minimal water and fertilizer with no runoff to rivers or lakes. We also use the best data monitoring available to ensure we provide the right nutrition for each animal.”
Grōv has partnered with the global information powerhouse, Amazon Web Services (AWS) on monitoring. “Grōv is using AWS machine learning and computer vision to improve the operational effectiveness of its tower farms by converting sensor data to meaningful insights,” said AWS Tech Lead for Agriculture, Karen Hildebrand. “These insights are used to improve the nutrition and yield of every harvest.”
The vertical farming system is named not after the home of the Greek gods, but after the Salt Lake Valley’s own Mount Olympus.
“Grōv is proud,” said Lindsley, “to be a local company solving a global problem.”
One solution to many problems
Grōv Technologies’ first priority is water conservation. Its system is extremely efficient, using 5% of the water of traditional agriculture by careful application and recycling of any excess.
Yet it also addresses a number of other challenges.
The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the fragile nature of our food supply chain. Now, even Utahns understand what it means to walk into a grocery store and find the shelves bare.
“If we’re sitting in a restaurant eating salads in Chicago,” said Lindsley, “how long did it take that produce to reach our table? At least two weeks. There’s nothing sustainable about that.”
The long trip our salad’s romaine made from Puebla, Mexico, to Chicago also has consequences beyond food security.
The world consumes 340 million metric tons of meat per year. Calculating just for the transportation of feed to meat animals adds up to a conservative annual estimate of the equivalent 5.2 billion metric tons of emitted greenhouse gases — roughly a billion more tons than are emitted by all sources across all of Europe in a given year.
Utah has 1.1 million head of beef and dairy cows. The feed transportation for these animals produces the same estimated amount of greenhouse gas as all vehicles in the state combined.
Lindsley envisions hundreds of indoor, vertical farms across the globe, dramatically shortening feed transportation trips.
In Elberta, Grōv’s partners, the family-owned Bateman’s Mosida Farms, see sustainability and economic advantages in their ties to the tech company. “Working with Grōv has been an absolute game-changer for us,” said Brad Bateman. “It gives us a way to become self-sufficient.”
The commitment runs deep enough that the dairy is moving its milking stations from half a mile from the Grōv Olympus Farms, to just 20 feet from its doorstep, cutting that feed transportation journey nearly to zero.
What it means for Utah
The vast majority of Utah’s scarce water goes to agriculture. Grōv Technologies sees itself as offering one model for how Utah can continue to honor its farming heritage, while also moving toward sustainability.
This is not to say it’s a magic wand. The system, at least for now, requires a significant investment, affordable only to very large livestock producers.
Grōv aims, in its next generation of Olympus towers, to dramatically boost its food yield while cutting water use below its official 5% target. This will make it more cost effective to more agricultural producers.
Much as Tesla started out by crafting high-performance sports cars that could compete with top brands, and then worked down to more affordable models for a broader audience, Grōv also hopes to become increasingly economical and more widely used with time.
Additionally, Grōv, with its no pesticides and minimal fertilizer and methane emissions easily could be adopted for organic farming.
It also hopes to bridge a conceptual gap in the farm-to-table movement in which restaurants seek locally sourced foods for their menus. By bringing the feed farm to the dairy or ranch, Grōv brings food closer to the consumer on a larger scale.
“We put a lot of work into careful sourcing,” said Mike Blocher, co-owner of Table X, a Salt Lake City restaurant focusing on the farm-to-table cuisine. “This [Grōv Technologies] model is not really what we are looking for as a business, but as far as it can bring us all nearer to eating food produced closer to home, I’m all for it.”
Solutions in practice
Do you own a farm or ranch and want to conserve more water? Here’s a great guide from Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education.
Not a farmer or a rancher but a gardener? Here’s a short guide from USU on conserving water in the garden.
As featured in a previous article on water recycling, here’s a sustainable garden watering system based on terra cotta pots called olla irrigation.