CALEDONIA — Dan Vukcevich admitted that his only previous farming experience was growing up on a cattle farm that never made any money.
However, Vukcevich does have extensive experience in manufacturing, which he directly applies to his job as chief operating officer of Revolution Farms LLC in Caledonia.
The company’s indoor hydroponic farm located at 2901 76th St. SE grows premium lettuce varieties and field 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 growing space with an automation system to execute tasks like planting seeds, cutting the lettuce and disposing of waste to be shipped to a nearby farm.
Revolution Farms, whose lettuce mixes are available from major retailers like Meijer Inc. and SpartanNash Co., is a prime example of how automation and other tenets of Industry 4.0 extend to industries beyond manufacturing.
Food as a widget
Vukcevich serves as COO alongside CEO and co-founder John Green, former executive chairman of Founders Brewing Co. who was named to the CEO position in 2019. Tam Serage, who has decades of experience in the plant growing industry, also serves as head grower for the farm.
Vukcevich’s previous experience with furniture maker izzy+ and Lakeshore Fittings Inc., which manufactures screw machine products, has been put to good use at Revolution Farms in helping to create an efficient and effective production process.
“If you control all the inputs, you should get a pretty steady output,” Vukcevich said. “It’s not the sexy way to say it, and no one really describes it like this, but it should just turn into a widget. We should be able to manufacture the same size plant all the time — it’s just a question of how much technology we have to put around it.”
Revolution Farms started as a 55,000-square-foot greenhouse that utilized a hydroponic method called deep water culture to grow its lettuce. This is where seedlings are left to mature for a couple of weeks before being placed in rafts that float on 30,000-gallon ponds that contain nutrient solution.
This method consists of mostly manual processes, requiring around 15 workers to maintain. 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 moving gutter system that now requires virtually no human touch to plant, grow and harvest lettuce.
The system uses thousands of long, narrow gutters that it packs with peat before planting the seeds and feeding them into storage lanes within the greenhouse. Each gutter of lettuce is hydrated through a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydroponic system, in which a pump delivers fertilized water to the grow tray and the residual water and nutrients empty through a drain pipe and are recycled.
Once the lettuce is mature, the gutters are moved through the system, which cuts the leaves and captures the excess growing media before cleaning out the gutter to make way for a new crop of lettuce.
All the while, Revolution Farms staff can precisely control conditions inside the facility, from type and frequency of light to CO2 levels and temperature. The climate control system is contained on an Android-based app that can be controlled remotely.
The whole process requires 90 percent less water and land when compared to outdoor growing.
The automation requires only two or three team members to oversee the 2 acres of Phase 2, but both phases remain important to operations, Vukcevich said.
“Phase 1 was 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’re going to make a lot of (lettuce), Phase 2 is the way to do it. If you want to experiment with a lot of things, Phase 1 is a good way to do it.”
Next on the company’s automation priority list is packing. To keep up with demand, Vukcevich said the farm would need around 25 workers in the packing cooler, which is a hugely disproportionate chunk of its workforce. The team is working with several automation companies right now to find a solution to streamline the packing process.
Ag tech race
While Revolution Farms’ technology might be head-and-shoulders above most traditional farmers and food processors, Marty Garencer suggested that gap could slowly narrow.
Garencer, the executive director for the West Michigan Food Processing Association, said interest in Industry 4.0 and related technologies among the organization’s 200-plus members has steadily grown in the last five years, with many companies setting sustainability goals that can be achieved through automation.
“Indoor farms that want to come to the area now — and not that we might not need more — but they’re going to face a lot more competition than they would five years ago,” Garencer said.
Earlier this year, Garencer and her organization opened the Food, Agriculture, Research, Manufacturing Center (FARM), a food processing incubator on the campus of Muskegon Community College.
Supporting the industry through advanced technology and future workforce development are two focuses for the center. Garencer said ag tech companies from around the world have reached out to the organization for help connecting with area farmers.
First, though, Garencer aims to complete a high-level assessment to gauge the technological needs of local farmers and food processors.
“We have to get a strategy around it,” she said. “It’s a better use of time for the food companies and the technology companies if we can help them zero in on who might be a good fit.”
Graceland Fruit Inc. is one such West Michigan food processor that has embraced technology over the years. The Frankfort-based producer of dried fruit ingredients, which are shipped around the world, built its operation around custom-designed commercial infusion and drying systems that operate non-stop nearly year round.
An employee only needs to load fruit into the machines, which were originally designed in the 1980s and fine-tuned along the way.
Graceland has made more recent strides in automation by overhauling its packing line. The company invested in a case erector so humans don’t have to build cases for the fruit. The system inserts bags into the cases and sends them along the line where they are automatically weighed and taped.
Graceland also invested in a palletizer machine so workers no longer have to assemble pallets for shipping.
Brenna Nugent, marketing and communications manager for Graceland, said the additions to the packing line have been helpful for the company, which is currently facing a fairly crucial labor shortage.
On the production side, Graceland plans to implement a laser sorting machine next month to eliminate hand sorting, which will free up workers and enhance product quality at the same time.
“We’re always trying to improve product quality — that’s our No. 1 goal,” Nugent said.
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