Most produce at the grocery store travels thousands of miles from where it’s grown, racking up carbon emissions while losing flavor. Starting just after Thanksgiving, however, customers at 11 local Wegmans stores will be able to pick up hydroponic lettuce grown just half an hour outside of Buffalo in Wheatfield, N.Y. The brand, Buffalo’s Best Lettuce, will be produced by Wheatfield Gardens in an innovative greenhouse that was recently invited to join NYSERDA’s new ECO Incubator.
“It’s kind of a pilot program, and if it works out [at these locations] they might roll it out to all 98 stores on the East Coast here,” said Paal Elfstrum, the founder of Wheatfield Gardens.
Elfstrum is no stranger to entrepreneurship. After 10 years of working for Pfizer, he left to co-found his own pharmaceutical company. He had learned a lot, but had also grown frustrated.
“I've always wanted to innovate a business and take what I was doing and look to improve on it. I felt like that kind of thing was somewhat stifled in a big corporation,” he said. He and his co-founders created Slate Pharmaceuticals, so named because “we wiped the slate clean and started new.” They encouraged creative input from all their employees, regardless of official rank. Elfstrum said that the approach paid off; a product they developed that delivered testosterone by subcutaneous injection is still in use today.
The jump from successful pharmaceutical company to greenhouse farming seemed natural to him.
“[Slate] was a lot more fun, it was innovative, and kind of cutting edge, and that's how I modeled my entrepreneur career after that. I'm always looking for industries that are in need of more efficient ways or more sustainable ways of doing things,” he said. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, budding research into phytochemicals caught his attention. For example, he said, “there’s increasing evidence that tobacco plants can carry vaccines and replicate them in their tissue, and then it can be extracted from it.”
He realized that scaling up production would require efficient controlled-environment growing methods. “You would never synthesize pharmaceutical material outside of a cleanroom, so it didn't make sense to me to grow plants outside that would eventually become medicine. So that's when I got into the greenhouse business, because it’s a semi-closed environment that you can control, and I just saw the inefficiencies of the current technology that is very good for growing tomatoes and cucumbers and things, but for growing phytochemicals, or phytopharmaceuticals, was not ideal.”
Read about how Launch NY’s Emerging Cleantech Opportunity Incubator is helping Wheatfield Gardens with its cleantech initiatives here.
Wheatfield caught his attention for a couple of reasons. Elfstrum explained that the climate was ideal for greenhouse growing, neither too hot nor too humid, and north of the snow belt with its threat of heavy roof loads. The most enticing factor, however, was that a greenhouse was already waiting. A power company had built one in the 1990s in order to comply with a regulation that required it to dispose of the excess heat produced by power generation, but had abandoned it by 2012.
“To build a greenhouse from scratch is incredibly capital-intensive and requires a tremendous amount of permitting,” Elfstrum said. The abandoned greenhouse already had necessary installations in place, providing a shortcut. “So that’s why we came to Western New York, and then Western New York just has an outstanding group of contractors that could help us rebuild this.” He cited National Maintenance and Modern Electric as his two biggest contractors that have helped to rehabilitate the facility.
The greenhouse is actually a complex of three enclosures linked by hallways. Its original purpose was to redirect waste heat from power generation; now that purpose is being fulfilled using modern technology. For instance, thermal energy can be used not only to heat the greenhouse, but also to cool it by driving a machine called an absorption chiller. Burning natural gas produces exhaust; through technology that didn’t exist in the 1990s, Wheatfield Gardens is able to clean the exhaust, producing food-grade CO2 that it then pumps through the greenhouse to supply its plants with carbon, increasing growth by as much as 30 percent.
“Instead of putting it into the atmosphere, we feed it to our plants and it acts like fertilizer. Why everybody else isn’t doing this I don’t know,” Elfstrum said, adding, “Every molecule we buy, we’re trying to maximize the value of that natural gas by using it in several different places, in several different ways.”
The shortcut offered by the already built greenhouse complex came with a catch, however.
“We took a business that had a terrible track record because it was run by a power company that actually liked to lose money because they got a tax write-off,” Elfstrum said. In order to grant him a loan, traditional banks needed to see a history of making money. They also balked for a reason familiar to business owners in Colorado and a growing number of states: Elfstrum was planning to grow industrial hemp. Wheatfield Gardens is part of the NYS Industrial Hemp Research Program, producing hemp for research into phytopharmaceuticals like CBD oil, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid that provides pain relief.
“Despite the fact that I have a letter and a permit that's signed by the governor and the head of the Department of Agriculture and Markets that says what I'm doing here is fully legal … and endorsed by Cornell University as a valuable research project, the general counsel and the underwriters at banks say, you know, that is marijuana, and you can't borrow money if you're growing marijuana,” he said. Given the size of the New York market, the rising national and international interest in cannabinoids, and the spread of legalization elsewhere, Elfstrum was frustrated with the friction he experienced, pointing out, “If you want to create jobs here, I can create a hundred jobs here for cannabis cultivation out of this farm.”
Despite these obstacles, Wheatfield Gardens is hard at work. Elfstrum has worked with Launch NY’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence Steve Leas to network and attract investment.
“We’re in the process of attracting a lot of investment right now because of the popularity of CBD and the fact that we've grown it successfully for a year now,” Elfstrum said.
The three greenhouses mean that he is able to partition research crops from produce. A 1.6-acre greenhouse is dedicated to food production, and two 5.5-acre greenhouses are planted with industrial hemp. NYSERDA has assisted with several grants and is working with the company to install a cogeneration unit, an on-site generator that produces both electricity and useful heat. By using both the byproduct CO2 and heat, Wheatfield Gardens will operate at above 85 percent efficiency, according to Elfstrum, who is proud to note that the threshold for qualifying for a high-efficiency grant is only 60 percent. National Grid has helped the company to identify incentives for clean-energy upgrades like installing high-efficiency LED lights that cost more initially, but will use less energy in the long run.
All of this contributes to Elfstrum’s vision for Wheatfield Gardens as an industry model.
“What we’d like to do is use Wheatfield Gardens as a demonstration facility on how to cultivate both food and medicine really sustainably, being as resource-efficient as possible in this endeavor, because the dirty little secret about cannabis cultivation is that it's super power-intensive,” he said. “We're seven miles from the Buffalo airport, and we have hundreds of thousands of aspiring cannabis growers and greenhouse vegetable growers that can come and see this technology on display right here in Western New York … we've had the steel mills here, we've had chemical plants on Niagara Falls Blvd., and I think it's an opportunity to establish another pioneering industry, to have the most technologically advanced greenhouse in the world right here, and that's what our goals are.”
Wheatfield Gardens may not yet be a household name, but locally, it’s already created a stir. On a Friday in early November, low clouds, rain, and fog reflected back the purple glow of the high-efficiency LEDs. “People were calling the police and saying they think they see aurora borealis in Wheatfield. It was our purple lights out here!” Elfstrum chuckled. “It went wild on Facebook, on the Channel Four news site.