Local Bounty: Glens Falls vertical farm aims to be testing ground for other cities

Racks that will soon feature herbs and microgreens are part of the Glens Falls Agricultural Pilot Project, a hydroponic vertical farm.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Racks that will soon feature herbs and microgreens are part of the Glens Falls Agricultural Pilot Project, a hydroponic vertical farm.

GLENS FALLS The city of Glens Falls might soon be going greener with the addition of a vertical farm.

Situated in a vacant space on the third floor of 18-22 Ridge St. is the Glens Falls Agricultural Pilot Project, a hydroponic vertical farm that will provide local restaurants with microgreens, herbs and greens.

The project is supported by a $96,700 grant from the Empire State Development Corp., which the city secured in 2020 just as the pandemic hit.

“When things started closing down because of the pandemic, we began thinking, ‘Are there going to be … downtown [buildings] vacant?’ ” said Jeffrey Flagg, the city’s economic development director.

He was searching for innovative ways to occupy empty buildings as well as those that were underutilized.

“Almost every … post-industrial Rust Belt city and upstate New York has these really cool downtowns that have upper-floor vacant spaces [that are] hard to repurpose spaces, [and] you don’t want to rip these buildings down, but it’s hard to easily repurpose them,” Flagg said.

The space at 18-22 Ridge St. certainly qualifies. The first floor is occupied by the restaurant [farmacy] restobar and there are offices on the second floor. However, the third floor looks as though it hasn’t been occupied for some years.

The walls could use a fresh coat of paint; some of the windows need to be repaired.

For the hydroponic project the third floor is ideal. Building owner Brian Bronzino has donated space for the pilot, according to Flagg. Working with Re-Nuble, a New York City-based agriculture technology company, Flagg helped create a vertical farm design that he describes as a “box in a box.”

Stark white polyvinyl paneling makes up the walls of the 480-square-foot vertical farm, sealing it off from the rest of the third floor. Inside are two large racks with several levels of trays to grow greens and herbs. In the coming weeks, the space will be outfitted with an air conditioning system as well as ultraviolet lights.

Farm Manager Josh Fabian says he plans to use conventional hydroponic materials, including a mineral salt fertilizer and Rockwool grow cubes — a lightweight hydroponic substrate made from spinning molten basaltic rock into fine fibers — to get the project started. Eventually, he’ll switch to compostable products from Re-Nuble.

“They have led the way in making hydroponic farm inputs that are compostable, which is a big step in the industry, trying to limit the amount of agricultural waste that is generated with farms like ours,” said Fabian. “It’s very exciting to see the industry grow and become more and more sustainable and regenerative.”

The project has had some logistical setbacks and delays in getting needed equipment, but earlier this month Fabian said they were nearing the finish line. The microgreens and the baby leafy greens can be ready to harvest within two to three weeks of planting, while basil and the heads of lettuce will take closer to six, according to Fabian.

“The focus of this project is to hyperlocalize production. So we will be delivering to a couple local restaurants. We’re starting small,” he said.

There’s room to add more racks to the vertical farm if the pilot proves successful.

Since word began to spread last year about the project, it’s generated plenty of interest and people have reached out to Flagg wanting to volunteer or help.

“It’s been remarkable,” Flagg said. “I’ve had, at this point, to sort of turn people away.

“I’ve been fascinated by the interest because vertical farming … indoor farming, hydroponic farming, none of these things are new. These have been around for decades, in some cases. What I suppose is new is we’re putting together a lot of different pieces into a new model. We took all the same ingredients, we took all the notes that are already there from the music, and we made a different song. That’s essentially what we’ve done here,” Flagg said.

The next few months will serve as a testing period for the project, and should offer insight into whether or not it’s successful and whether it could be replicated in cities like Schenectady or Saratoga Springs.

“Can we create a model that focuses on hyperlocal production, meaning you’ve solved the last-mile delivery problem because you’re in the last mile?” Flagg said.

It’s not clear whether or not the project will eventually become commercialized or turned into a community-led venture.

Either way, the vertical farm isn’t meant to replace other local farms, according to Fabian.

“The goal is not to replace the local farmers by any means. We’re just trying to supplement areas of supply [and] to hyperlocalize,” Fabian said.

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