May 24, 2018

Smart Farm Proves to be a Smart Idea for Convention Center

For anyone walking through the North Building of the Greater Columbus Convention Center, the Smart Farm is hard to miss. Tucked into a wall behind plate glass and surrounded by LED lights, the green shoots and leaves of basil, chives, kale and other edible plants grow from their vertical hydroponic perches, destined for savory meals at the Convention Center.

“It’s the first fully contained hydroponic farm at a convention center anywhere in the country,” says Daniel Palawasta, general manager of Levy Restaurants at the Convention Center. “It represents a commitment by Levy (the Convention Center’s food and beverage partner) to provide a fresh garden concept within the building.”

Installed in July 2017, the Smart Farm presented a learning curve – not only for how to farm the herbs successfully, but how to build the farm itself, Palawasta says. Constructing and getting the farm operational was a collaboration among Palawasta; Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority Senior Project Manager Scott Reed; LMN Architects, which led the design of the facility’s recent renovation and expansion; and Bright Agrotech, a Wyoming-based designer of vertical hydroponic farms.

Another challenge was getting the growing lights just right. The plants in the Smart Farm need a lot of light, but it can’t shine so powerfully that it becomes annoying to visitors in the building, Palawasta says. So, his team worked with food scientists to develop a unique lighting schedule that avoided full light intensity during the day while still allowing plants to get the type of light they need.

“Because different plants thrive in different parts of the light spectrum, we use several different wavelengths during the day,” he explains. “Passersby may see all white, all blue or all pink during the day. Then, it’s full intensity overnight.”

He noted that this innovative approach may have contributed to a grow cycle that is much shorter than anticipated before the farm became operational.

Today, the Smart Farm provides herbs and other foods that supplement or accent the other foods being sold at catered events or at the South Café and Marketplace. “There are days when we feed 4,000 to 5,000 people,” Palawasta says. “We don’t buy basil anymore, and the chives also meet all our needs.”

Other produce – the farm was also growing kale, rainbow chard and bok choy earlier this month – would require more square footage to feed that many people.

Eventually, the herbs grown at the Smart Farm could even find its way into breads and savory pastries. Levy’s new Convention Center pastry chef Stephanie DeCaprio so far has focused on sweets, due to customer demand. But there are plans now to expand into other bakery items that could use some of what’s grown at the Smart Farm.

While most of the produce is destined for use within the Convention Center, there are opportunities to spread the “grow local” concept to others. That includes periodic donations to Lifecare Alliance, which operates services including Meals on Wheels. And, the farm has led to employment for a gentleman hired through a local autism agency.

“He’s the farmer now,” Palawasta says. “He works 25 to 30 hours a week, he takes care of the plants and keeps me informed of what’s going on. He’s here three times a week and, like all our employees, has a strong sense of ownership for success.”

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