Tens of thousands of empty storage containers are stacked in towers along I-95 across from the harbor in Newark, New Jersey. They’re heaped there in perpetuity, too cheap to be shipped back to Asia but too expensive to melt down.

Where many might see a pile of garbage, Lior Hessel sees, of all things, an organic farm. Those storage containers would be ideal housing for miniature farms, he believes, stacked one upon another like an agricultural skyscraper, all growing fresh organic produce for millions of wealthy consumers. And since the crops would be grown with artificial lighting, servers, sensors and robots, the cost of labor would consist of a single computer technician’s salary.

Hessel has a personal stake in this vision: He’s the CEO of OrganiTech, a Wilmington, Delaware, company working toward making such farms a reality. The design and layout of the automated farms are more related to the semiconductor plants of Silicon Valley than the lettuce fields of Salinas Valley. “This is a factory, not a farm,” says Hessel, whose own background is in the chip industry. “We just build lettuce instead of CPUs.”

The vertical farm model is one of Hessel’s ultimate goals, and OrganiTech has been busy laying the groundwork to make skyscraper farms possible. It’s already using a system of robotics in high-tech greenhouses. “You might as well take advantage of the sunlight when you can,” he says. “It’s free energy.”

Saving the cost of energy is a big part of OrganiTech’s near-term business plan. As of mid-2005, it cost as much as 50 cents to transport a 1-pound head of lettuce from California (where 85 percent of America’s lettuce is grown) to the East Coast, according to Ram Acharya, an agricultural economist at Arizona State University. If the lettuce can be grown near where it’s eaten, it will have an automatic cost advantage.

OrganiTech can supply a complete set of robotic equipment plus greenhouse for $2 million. A system the size of a tennis court can produce 145,000 bags of lettuce leaves per year — that’s a yield similar to a 100-acre traditional farm. According to the company, it costs 27 cents to produce a single head of lettuce with its system, compared to about 18 cents per head of lettuce grown in California fields. Factor in the transportation costs and suddenly the automated greenhouse grower saves as much as 43 cents a head.

Add to that the fact that OrganiTech’s system is entirely free of pesticides (the greenhouses keep positive air pressure inside the structure, so few if any insects can fly in) and are grown hydroponically (without soil) so nutrients, fertilizers and water requirements are one-third to one-fifth the needs of soil-grown lettuce. That means the lettuce can be marketed as water-friendly and organic, which adds to the premium consumers are willing to pay.

By Sam Jaffe

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