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Greenhouses: Assessing the costs

Cost has always been a factor for any company looking to expand into protected growing.

There’s both good and bad news on this front: advances in technology are helping lower the barrier for entry, yet also making it more difficult to keep up with latest and often expensive innovations.

Finding the right place can be difficult, as land is often at a premium. Rural regions may be less expensive and offer ample space but can make distribution costs prohibitive. Urban locations must account for far less space, parking restrictions, traffic, and many other issues.

“BrightFarms builds expansive, state-of-the-art greenhouses,” said Josh Norbury, vice president of operations for BrightFarms, Irvington, NY. “In addition to the expertise and effort needed to operate effectively, they take time, energy, and resources.”

Indeed; once a location has been selected comes construction or renovation, equipment, seeds, hiring personnel, and utilities. The latter can run into tens of thousands of dollars for a sizeable greenhouse. Light, however, is one parameter where there’s good news.

Previously, most indoor growing systems used high-pressure sodium lamps, but recent developments have made LED (light-emitting diode) products the way to go. These lights not only use less energy and can be run on solar power, giving them a smaller carbon footprint, but are considerably less expensive.

Unfortunately, there is one aspect of light that can cause unexpected problems for growers, like Loudon, NH-based lef Farms Corporation. After spending $10 million on a large-scale, state-of-the-art greenhouse, the facility incurred the wrath of neighbors and local government.

Each night as the sun went down, the greenhouse’s controlled illumination created a very bright, orange glow in the night sky. Nearby residents were neither awed nor fond of the light display and complained. Although solar energy provides 80 percent of its light, lef Farms uses high-powered grow lights for the remainder, and some consider the facility a nuisance.

Though there are solutions, such as natural and artificial barriers, refractive panels, and the use of shade curtains, they add to the cost of doing business.

This is a multi-part feature adapted from the cover story of the May/June 2020 issue of Produce Blueprints.