November 9, 2016

Shining so Bright!

Rochelle’s BrightFarms has a little Kish Shine

In the Kishwaukee College district, everyone gets pretty used to seeing acres of corn and soybeans. But stepping into BrightFarms in Rochelle is to encounter acres of every hue of green: varieties of romaine, arugula, spinach, and many more! Walk through another door and be awed by an acre of tomatoes, reaching upward to heights of over 20 feet. Helping with all the delicious splendor are two Kishwaukee College Horticulture Alums: Angela Lovelady and Bradley Simpson.

Overseeing acres of lettuce and other vegetables grown in efficient and organic hydroponic greenhouses using only the most sustainable methods is like a siren song to the horticulture professional. “When growing is what you do, this is truly exciting,” explained B.J. Miller, Production Supervisor with BrighFarms. “The BrightFarms greenhouse in Rochelle is a cutting edge start-up and it is great to be a part of it from the dirt lot it started out as to what you see now.” There are two other BrightFarms locations, one in Pennsylvania and another in Virginia.

The Rochelle location was breaking some new ground, however. The four-acre greenhouse was the first Midwestern venture for the company. The company policy is to document everything they did at the new location. They built on previous greenhouses but incorporated a few different methods as well. The team met daily to review what they had accomplished and then to write everything down for future BrightFarms’ start-ups.

Needing reliable help, B.J. sought out Kishwaukee College horticulture graduates: Angela Lovelady, Ashton, and Bradley Simpson, Rochelle. Angela works as a seeder: she runs clean, sterile seed boards through a series of equipment that fills thin rows with nutrient-dense soil and sows seed in each row. Each board of lettuce and herb greens is then cooled for a couple of days to promote germination. Angela loves the job. “It is so exciting to be part of something that is really revolutionary,” she said. “It is such a new idea in farming. I just love it.”

Once boards are filled with tender shoots, they are transferred to the greenhouse proper where they float their way, day-by-day, the football field length of the “growing fields.” Once the board completes the process and makes it to the opposite end from where they began, the greens are ready to be harvested.

The tomato greenhouse is a slightly different story. Rows of tomatoes in a multitude of varieties climb string trellises to the ceiling. The tomato plants are what is called “indeterminate,” meaning the plant will climb and grow as long as they are given space. BrightFarms planted the first tomato crops in early July and the first greens in the end of June and has already harvested several cycles of plants. In the controlled conditions the plants grow unimpeded and flourish. The tomatoes can grow 6 – 10 inches each week.

Bradley Simpson works with the tomatoes. On specialized platform carts, he prunes and cares for the crops, careful of the portable bee-boxes scattered throughout the rows. “Unlike lettuce, tomatoes need to be pollinated and that is where the bees come in,” Bradley stated. He loves the job and the possibilities. The May 2016 Hort graduate said, “It is such a unique growing style. I am building on everything I learned as a student at Kish and getting a lot of hands-on experience with beneficial insects. The company is growing, too, so I hope to be able to make a long-term career in the field and with BrightFarms.”

What keeps B.J., Bradley and Angela so energized is the innovative growing practices. B.J. explained, “Growing vegetables this way uses 90% less space than traditional farming methods and 80% less water. It is pesticide free, non-GMO [non-genetically modified organisms] and the produce is in the stores within 24-hours of harvest. The varieties of produce shipped from California or other places are chosen to withstand the long shipping process, not necessarily grown for the best flavor. We grow for flavor and freshness.”

Flavor, freshness – no wonder Kish alums Angela Lovelady and Bradley Simpson can’t stop their shining smiles!