Revolution Farms brings automation to the greenhouse
CALEDONIA – Dan Vukcevich admitted his only previous farming experience was growing up on a cattle farm that never made any money.
However, Vukcevich has extensive manufacturing experience, which he applies directly to his role as COO of Revolution Farms LLC in Caledonia.
The company’s indoor hydroponic farm, located at 2901 76th St. SE, grows premium varieties of lettuce and greens year-round and is capable of producing 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of produce each week. A few months ago, Revolution Farms unveiled Phase 2 of its operation, which consists of 2 acres of grow space with an automation system to perform tasks such as planting seeds, cutting lettuce and removing waste. to be shipped to a nearby farm.
Revolution Farms, whose lettuce mixes are available from major retailers like Meijer Inc. and Spartan Nash Co., is a prime example of how automation and other Industry 4.0 principles extend to industries beyond manufacturing.
Food as a widget
Vukcevich is COO alongside CEO and co-founder John Green, former executive chairman of Founders Brewing Co. who was appointed CEO in 2019. Tam Serage, who has decades of experience in the plant growing industry, is also the farm’s chief producer.
Vukcevich’s previous experience with a furniture manufacturer izzy + and Lakeshore Connections Inc., which makes screw machine products, has been put to good use at Revolution Farms to help create an effective and efficient production process.
“If you control all the inputs, you should get a pretty stable output,” Vukcevich said. “That’s not the sexy way to put it, and nobody really describes it like that, but it should just turn into a widget. We should be able to manufacture the same factory size all the time – that’s just a matter of how much technology we need to put around it.
Revolution Farms started out as a 55,000 square foot greenhouse that used a hydroponic method called deep water cultivation to grow its lettuce. This is where the seedlings mature for a few weeks before being placed in rafts that float on 30,000 gallon ponds containing a nutrient solution.
This method consists mainly of manual processes, requiring about fifteen workers for maintenance. The farm continues to use the process in its Phase 1 operation.
With Phase 2, Revolution Farms worked with Finland-based Green Automation Group to implement a mobile gutter system that now requires virtually no human intervention to plant, grow and harvest lettuce.
The system uses thousands of long, narrow gutters that it fills with peat before planting the seeds and feeding them into the greenhouse storage aisles. Each lettuce gutter is hydrated through a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydroponic system, in which a pump delivers fertilized water to the grow tray and residual water and nutrients drain through a drainage pipe and are recycled. .
Once the lettuce is ripe, the gutters are moved through the system, which cuts the leaves and captures the excess substrate before cleaning the gutter to make room for a new crop of lettuce.
During this time, Revolution Farms staff can precisely control the conditions inside the facility, from light type and frequency to CO2 levels and temperature. The air conditioning system is contained in an Android based application which can be controlled remotely.
The whole process requires 90% less water and soil compared to growing outdoors.
Automation only requires two or three team members to oversee the 2 acres in Phase 2, but both phases remain important to operations, Vukcevich said.
“Phase 1 has been a great experience and it gives us great capabilities to try new things, but it’s not as production ready as what you see in Phase 2,” he said. . “If you want to do a lot of (lettuce), phase 2 is the best way to do it. If you want to experience a lot of things, phase 1 is a good way to do it.
Next on the business automation priority list is packaging. To meet demand, Vukcevich said the farm would need around 25 workers in the packing cooler, which is a hugely disproportionate share of its workforce. The team is currently working with several automation companies to find a solution to streamline the packaging process.
Agricultural technology race
While Revolution Farms’ technology could be head and shoulders above most traditional farmers and processors, Marty Garencer suggested the gap could slowly be closing.
Garencer, executive director of the West Michigan Food Processing Association, said that interest in Industry 4.0 and related technologies among the more than 200 members of the organization has grown steadily over the past five years, with many companies setting sustainability goals that can be achieved through automation.
“The indoor farms that want to come to the area now – and not that we don’t need more – but they’re going to face a lot more competition than they did five years ago,” Garencer said. .
Earlier this year, Garencer and his organization opened the Food, Agriculture, Research, Manufacturing center (FARM), an agri-food incubator on the campus of Muskegon Community College.
Supporting the industry with advanced technology and the future development of the workforce are two axes for the center. Garencer said agricultural technology companies around the world have reached out to the organization for help connecting with farmers in the area.
But first, Garencer aims to conduct a high-level assessment to assess the technological needs of local farmers and processors.
“We need to put a strategy in place around this,” she said. “It’s a better use of time for food and tech companies if we can help them figure out who might be a good fit. “
Graceland Fruits Inc. is one of those West Michigan food processors who has adopted the technology over the years. The Frankfurt-based producer of dried fruit ingredients, which are shipped worldwide, has built its operations around custom-designed commercial infusion and drying systems that operate continuously almost year-round.
An employee only needs to load the fruit into the machines, which were originally designed in the 1980s and refined along the way.
Graceland has made more recent advances in automation by overhauling its packaging line. The company invested in a crate erector so humans don’t have to build crates for the fruit. The system inserts bags into the crates and sends them along the line where they are automatically weighed and taped.
Graceland also invested in a palletizing machine so workers no longer have to assemble pallets for shipping.
Brenna Nugent, director of marketing and communications for Graceland, said the additions to the packaging line have been helpful for the company, which is currently facing a fairly critical labor shortage.
On the production side, Graceland plans to implement a laser sorting machine next month to eliminate manual sorting, which will free up workers and at the same time improve product quality.
“We are always trying to improve the quality of the products – this is our No. 1 goal,” Nugent said.