11/6/19 Aeroponics, Austin Towers

Austin Towers stands in front of his aeroponic basil plants inside Corbin's Corner in Lafayette. 

At Lafayette Produce farm on Wabash Avenue, 25 aeroponic towers produce basil, kale and other crops. Austin Kasso, Lafayette Produce owner, said he hopes to increase the farm to hundreds of towers as they become a year-round source of local, organic produce for Lafayette residents.

Lafayette Produce’s vertical aeroponic system involves growing plants in towers, with the roots of the plants extending into the interior of soilless, cylindrical towers. Every 15 minutes, water mixed with an all-natural nutrient solution trickles down over the roots.

“With vertical aeroponics, we can grow 150 different fruits, vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers,” Kasso said. “We can do a great variety of things that people ordinarily don’t have access to around here. We could do five different kinds of basil and five different types of tomatoes.”

Because the water-nutrient mix is reused and trickled through multiple times, none of the water or nutrients are wasted like they might be in soil-based agriculture, Kasso said. The resulting produce is healthier because the plants are never subjected to nutrient deficiencies while they grow, he said.

“(Aeroponic towers) use 98% less water than traditional farming and they can grow 150 different crops in about 50% less time with about 30% greater yield on average,” Kasso said.

“Yields in soilless systems are typically higher and you can reduce the crop cycle time, especially with the leafy vegetables,” said Petrus Langenhoven, horticulture and hydroponic crop specialist for Purdue’s horticulture and landscape architecture department.

Up until last year, Kasso had worked with community members and Purdue Habitat for Humanity to fundraise and purchase his first 12 aeroponic towers. Since he began in 2013, Kasso has experimented with numerous crops, including tomatoes, kale, basil and zucchini.

In 2018, Kasso was approached by his current business partner, Bob Corbin, to start an aeroponic farm for Corbin’s Corner Market, a store on Wabash Avenue selling local goods such as handmade candles, raw honey and West Lafayette BONZ BBQ sauce.

Kasso said Wabash Avenue used to be considered the “armpit of Lafayette.” Historically, it was the part of the city that had little development and lots of crime. Over the last few years, community planners have worked to bring new life to the area, inviting artists to adorn buildings with murals and expanding the local park.

Kasso also said that, because of the efficiency of the method, he thinks aeroponics is uniquely well-suited for addressing food insecurity with organic produce for lower-income individuals.

“I was inspired to start it here because I realized there’s a food insecurity problem in Indiana as well,” Kasso said. “It needs to be addressed and I believe local food and urban farming are the answer to that.”

Langenhoven said the closer farming is to cities, the better.

“Urban farming is great,” Langenhoven said. “I think the closer we can get to the major city centers, the better it is for that supply chain.”

He said there is a potential for urban farming to help meet demand for fresh produce. Two controlled-environment farms — Green Sense Farms in Portage, Indiana, and Gotham Greens in Chicago — both successfully supply produce year-round to the Chicago area.

Local produce often sells at a premium because customers are drawn to its superior taste and freshness.

“I’m a big fan of (local farming), because I like fresh produce,” Langenhoven said. “I know what fresh produce tastes like because I grow this stuff and I eat what I grow, and everybody else in the department, ... they’re always like, ‘Wow, this is so different from what it tastes like in the store.’ And it’s really because it was picked this morning or yesterday and I’ve waited until it was fully mature to actually pick it.”

Langenhoven said customers are often willing to pay a premium for local produce that helps make capital- and energy-intensive controlled cropping systems such as aeroponics more viable.

“First thing to note about aeroponics is that it’s actually a very management-intensive system,” Langenhoven said. “Anything can go wrong if you don’t have backups. You (can) have total crop failure because the roots are hanging in the air.”

Any sort of power outage can devastate a crop if proper electricity backup systems aren’t in place. These backup systems and the other controls needed to have a functional production system makes aeroponics very expensive, Langhoven said.

Due to the productivity and efficiency of his setup, Kasso said he is able to make up for the increased infrastructure and energy costs, especially when compared to produce shipped from California. His goal is to sell local produce at a similar price.

“Instead of charging more for organic, local, it’s going to be similar to what you’d find at Pay Less or Walmart,” Kasso said.

Lafayette Produce currently sells basil to two local restaurants, Bruno’s Pizza and Town & Gown Bistro.

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