The vegetable farm of the future has arrived in Wykoff, a small farming community in Southeast Minnesota just 40 minutes from the hi-tech city of Rochester.
Spouses Tony and Kelly Rahe are the owners of Rahe of Sunshine Farms. The farm is located behind the old bank in Wykoff and instead of vegetables growing in a garden of rich black dirt, the farm is a vertical hydroponic growing room located in a 40’x8’x9.5’ climate-control cargo container.
In addition to the one cargo container, a bright blue metal building is currently being built in front of the container to block the entrance to two containers from the Minnesota weather. The building will also be used as a store front where customers can purchase fresh produce.
Kelly explained that her husband, a veteran, studied horticulture in college, spent the next 20 years working at a golf course and is currently power washing hog barns and on the road a lot. She explained that he is eager to get back to his roots and started searching online when he came across Freight Farms (who sell hydroponic container farms). After the container arrived and everything was set up and installed, the couple headed to Boston last September for a three-day training seminar. When they returned, they were ready to start growing.
The first step in the growing process is the seedling table where everything is first sanitized, then the seeds are planted one by one in a nutrient rich pod using a tweezer and again sanitized. The seeds are given nutrients while soaking in trays before being transplanted to the wall. The Rahes were currently transplanting about 2,000 seedlings which were started three weeks earlier. The different varieties of lettuce planted the previous week will be ready to harvest in about three to four more weeks. There are two methods of harvesting. The cube with the plant in it can be removed or the leaves can be cut off. The plants will remain fresh and crispy in the refrigerator for three weeks.
The lettuce needs seven to eight weeks to grow, and radish only three weeks, so the lettuce is spaced out on the wall leaving room to add the radishes since they do not take as long to mature. Kelly shared that they have little seedling loss.
Microgreens are also being grown at the farm. The broccoli and radishes taste just like their larger contemporaries and add a snap to salads and sandwiches or can be used as decorations.
A wicking foam is inserted between each row. Tony explained that the water leaks from the top and leaks down the wick constantly, keeping it wet. The plants are watered every 40 minutes for about five minutes and then the water is recycled.
The entire process only uses five gallons of water to grow 3½ – 4 acres per day. Most of the water loss is attributed to evaporation.
According to Freight Farms, the annual harvest is 2-6 tons. The equivalent land yield is 2-4 acres annually, and the power usage is on average 168-231 kWh per day. The container farm operates in the most extreme climates year-round; temperatures range from -40º F to 120º F. “In a year’s time, we will turn out 50 to 55 acres of produce,” shared Tony.
The growing room is lit with LED lighting. The temperature is between 65º and 75º F but when the grow lights are on it gets pretty warm. The Rahes run 18-hour days. Day time is the plants night time because the regular lights are run during the day. “7 p.m. to 11 a.m. the next morning is their daylight,” explained Tony.
Kelly proudly announced, “Our plants run on Wi-Fi.” The Rahe of Sunshine Farms is not only a vertical hydroponic farm, but also a “smart” farm, allowing the empty nesters to not be tied down to the farm. Tony said, “We can run everything from our phone and computer.” Recently the couple was out of town visiting their children for five days in Wisconsin and they were able to monitor the temperature, lights, water, and check on the plants via their phones while they were gone.
“We do not use any chemicals. We use nitrogen, phosphate, and potash. That’s it. There is a pH Down we use to keep the pH down to just below neutral,” explained Tony. “You don’t want to water your garden plant with city water because the pH is too high.”
The farm is located at 101 Carimona St. in downtown Wykoff. Visit their website, raheofsunshinefarms.com, to subscribe to the farm newsletter and shop.