March 06, 2021

Rochelle business growing better salad greens hydroponically

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Tired of the old-school salad of bland iceberg lettuce and hard tomato wedges?

BrightFarms has something better for your taste buds and overall health.

Since last year, its four-acre greenhouse south of Rochelle has been providing top quality fresh greens and herbs, along with tomatoes.

It is different the Mighty Vine operation, also near Rochelle, that grows tomatoes only in its greenhouse.

Bright Farms grows 75 percent greens and 25 percent tomatoes in its hydroponic greenhouse.

“We choose Rochelle because they are very receptive to innovative farming,” said Abby Prior, Vice President of Marketing for Bright Farms. “They were friendly and open to our type of agriculture.”

That type of agriculture is based upon the premise of controlling an indoor environment in creating a product superior to what is found outdoors.

“When you compare the indoors to outdoors, you take away the harsher element,” Prior said. “We also use less water, land and energy than regular farming. We have designed the optimal environment for plant growth.”

Overseeing the beds of spinach, romaine, kale, arugula, basil and other blends of greens is head grower Nick Chaney.

“We have a local business model of not moving our product more than 100 miles from where it is grown,” Chaney said. “It is based on flavor and quality, not what is sturdiest to ship, such as what you get from California.”

Another unique component of BrightFarms is an insistence of being pesticide free, a claim that even organic produce can’t make.

Recent studies have shown many fruits and vegetables having questionable amounts of pesticides.

Like other upstart companies started by an environmentally conscious generation, Bright Farms is concerned about its footprint on planet Earth and the people living on it.

“Besides the health of the environment, there is health of society,” Prior said. “We are bringing a better food product and providing good-paying agriculture jobs.”

That will help erase the stigma of deplorable working conditions and low wages of migrant workers from decades past, of which used to be commonplace in rural areas near Rochelle.

“Our biggest challenge is building the right crew for our mission,” Chaney said. “We want a staff here that will deliver what is best for the consumer.”

Chaney, who originally went to school to study population management for animals, eventually was offered a job in hydroponics, before settling in with BrightFarms last year.

“I came here, because they were highly spoken in the industry,” Chaney said.

As head grower, Chaney job is more like the director of a play - controlling the lights, venting, temperatures, nutrients, water and growth cycle.

Everything must be orchestrated together like a stage production.

His hardest plant to grow is the company’s most popular, spinach.

“The demand for spinach is high,” he said. “It’s a very tricky crop, susceptible to root disease.”

Chaney’s touch can be found on the once maligned kale plant, but one slowly growing in consumer acceptance.

He has combined lacinato, Russian, red and Siberian kale together to create a varietal form pleasing in both color and texture.

“Consumers are looking for better flavor,” Prior said.

The Rochelle operation is the third greenhouse started by BrightFarms, joining others in Pennsylvania and Virginia, with another being built for Ohio.

The company was started in 2011.

Primarily, the Rochelle greenhouse supplies 40 Marianos groceries around Chicago and another 100 stores in Wisconsin.

“We also work locally with Sullivans,” Prior said. “If you evaluate our product versus what you’d find on the shelves that have traveled a few days, you’ll see a difference.”

According to its website, BrightFarms finances, designs, builds and operates greenhouse farms at or near supermarkets, cutting time, distance, and cost from the produce supply chain.