Staples project growing vertical kale indoors

The hydroponics project started in 2020 with Great River Energy, Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative, and the Electrical Power Research Institute hoping to learn new techniques and increase access to fresh produce. And even with kale as the chosen plant, local organizations rooted for the success of the hydroponics pod. The pod, planted at the Central Lakes College Staples campus, is a shipping container with room for 5,820 kale plants.

“I didn’t know how things were going to grow in here, it’s kind of a weird concept with there being no sunlight and things like that, so just seeing it go from a little seed to your big plant and harvesting it, I think that has been the coolest aspect,” CLC research analyst Noah Boelter shared with Minnesota educators in a virtual tour on July 13.

The pod, equivalent to one acre of crops, is a supplement to traditional farming, not a replacement, as TWEC member service manager Allison Uselman said. Although kale is the focus of the two-year project, the team has experimented with growing basil, swiss chard, lemon balm, and chives. Romaine lettuce, butterhead lettuce, and salad mixes are next on the list—and after a year of only kale, Boelter is excited about the new opportunities.

Each kale seed, planted by hand, starts in the nursery before being transplanted to vertical panels. The kale takes 12 weeks to reach maturity. The team of four staff members and interns plant and transplant on Wednesdays and harvest on Mondays. “Kale is pretty forgiving, which is very fortunate for us,” Boelter said after sharing the tale of a frozen pump during the winter. The kale wilted and bounced back in a matter of days. The team is also learning about flooding and nutrient dosing in the pod.

With the expected growth of indoor agriculture, Uselman said electrical companies will need to prepare for the change. For example, the pod uses the most energy when most other customers could have off-peak rates. The light and water systems run from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily. The kale is watered for five minutes every 45 minutes. The electricity cost is about $600 a month.

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