Economic Development

Microgreen Garden Grows with Vertical Farming Trend

Microgreens Garden Grows With the Trend

Amorette Farms is an indoor, vertical farm that grows nonGMO microgreens – the shoots of salad greens like arugula – using controlled environment agriculture. Since launching this spring, the company is already serving about a dozen commercial clients, said its founder, Devyn Rothbrust.

“It’s introducing a new type of agriculture into an area that’s predominantly traditional agriculture,” Rothbust says. “For me right now, it’s getting my brand out there to get people to know who I am, what I’m doing and that this is in the area now.”

After graduating from Kent State University Salem in 2016, Rothbrust worked as a senior researcher in the field for a few years. The indoor, vertical farm trend is something that’s very popular in Europe and Japan and is “something that’s on the move elsewhere in the United States,” he says. Currently, AeroFarms in New Jersey is the big name in the industry, he adds.

With the vast inventory of vacant industrial space in the five-county region, the area is ripe for this type of agriculture, Rothbrust says. Empty factories and abandoned buildings are “the types of things that vertical farmers can fit into perfectly,” he says, because farmers can control the light levels, temperature and air.

And with urban areas in the Mahoning Valley building back up, it’s the right time to make a go of it in his hometown of Salem, he says.

“I think it’s important for people my age, especially entrepreneurs, to improve the place they live in,” Rothbrust says. “This type of industry will add value to the city and bring something new and unique.”

Rothbrust initially wanted to set up in a large space within the city, but eventually decided to start smaller and work his way up, says Julie Needs, executive director of the Sustainable Opportunity Development Center, Inc.

The SOD Center has been working with Amorette Farms for nearly a year to help Rothbrust put together a business plan and get his company off the ground, Needs says.

Needs connected Rothbrust with the Ohio Small Business Development Center to help him develop a business plan, she says. The organization also courted local restaurants to try Rothbrust’s product.

“We have a large number of restaurants here in Salem, and a lot of them are family owned,” Needs says. “So there’s a great benefit for the product that he sells to many of the restaurants to offer them fresh produce.”

Currently operating out of a small space in Beloit, Rothbrust grows about 200 to 400 ounces of microgreens at a time – about two weeks from seed to harvest. Some crops such as cilantro may take up to three weeks, while others, such as radishes, take just eight days. Microgreens are harvested after the first true leaf emerges, “about two inches in height,” he says.

The process is quick because it isn’t reliant on the weather, Rothbrust explains. He has complete control over light and water throughout the entire life of the plant, “so it’s growing in optimal conditions to grow as fast as it can,” he says. “All the energy is stored in the seed, so there’s no need to fertilize.”

Rather than invest in cutting-edge technology such as artificial intelligence and robotics, which are popular in the agriculture industry, Rothbrust minimizes technology use to keep costs low, instead relying on his knowledge of the process. Operating costs are kept to “a couple hundred bucks” monthly, he says.

As he expands, the vertical farm “has the potential to use a lot of electricity,” but the process still uses 95% less water than conventional farming, he says. This helps keep his utility costs low.

In addition to cilantro and radishes, he grows arugula, broccoli, amaranth, mustard, cress, and mild and spicy lettuce mixes.

“I’m continuing to grow that list as I move forward,” he says.

Clients order produce for special events and farmers markets, and Rothbrust anticipates more orders as more learn about and understand the process, he says.

Deliveries are guaranteed within 24 hours of harvest, he says, so customers are getting “the absolute freshest greens they can get.”

As national news stories of E. Coli outbreaks force the recall of some traditionally grown products and put greater scrutiny on food safety, vertical farming reducing those risks, he adds.

“Our crop never touches human skin,” he says. “We wear the proper equipment to handle it to where it’s going to be the safest it can be.”

With Amorette Farms producing and selling to customers about a year after the idea was first conceived, SOD’s Needs attributes the success to Rothbrust’s “great entrepreneurial spirit and mindset,” she says. And with it being a unique product, “It’s been fun to watch,” she says.

“When someone brings you that idea and you see how it can benefit the community and the individuals in the community and all the other business they can touch, it’s fantastic,” Needs says. “It’s really what we’ve seen in our downtown. We’ve had some successful entrepreneurs and they’re feeding off of each other.”

Which is why Rothbrust hopes to soon move his operation into a downtown Salem location to be a part of that growth, he says. To get there, he looks to continue building his brand, adding customers and opening up opportunities for investors to help expand his operation.

“Our goal since the beginning has been to add value to the community we are in,” he says. “By establishing our offices downtown we can be a part of that restoration. We would be a unique business to the area and I believe setting up in Salem would be a great opportunity.”

Pictured: A crop of amaranth, a bright magenta microgreen high in calcium and vitamin C, grows at Amorette Farms.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.