Startup uses LEDs to grow plants in shipping containers

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Farm Forum

DALLAS — After 40 years growing plants – running nurseries in Thailand and managing landscape projects in Vietnam – Glenn Behrman was ready to retire.

Then the New York native discovered sunless vertical farming, which means growing plants indoors and nourishing them with LED lights.

With no plan, no design and no business yet, he moved back to the U.S. and went to work building a controlled environment inside a shipping container.

He named it the Growtainer and created a business, GreenTech Agro. Four years later, he’s based in Dallas and has partnered with the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center.

The partnership is an agreement under which Behrman can use the center’s facilities to run his business. In turn, the center can use the Growtainers for research.

Mike Gould, the center’s director, said the agreement also allows them to share data and undertake joint research.

On the outside, the Growtainer, a 40-foot-long metal box, looks like a typical shipping container. But on the inside, hundreds of LED lights cast a pink glow, and Behrman can control the temperature and humidity. The plants grow on Growracks, another of his designs. A timer controls the water.

Because it doesn’t rely on the sun or seasons, Behrman’s Growtainer could enable farmers to produce crops almost anywhere any time of the year.

Behrman, 65, initially wanted the Growtainer to have more bells and whistles, like plumbing and a $60,000 system to operate the Growtainer remotely. It took four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain before he was satisfied.

“I had to either figure it out or admit that I couldn’t figure it out,” he said. “And I’m not one for admitting that I can’t figure it out.”

Behrman said he not only wants a successful business but also to have a positive effect on society. He hopes his technology will be a steppingstone to defeating world hunger.

Growing plants without natural light is a hot topic, but not many people are pursuing it, according to Chris Higgins, one of the owners of Hort Americas. Higgins sells supplies to farmers who work with controlled environments, like greenhouses and vertical farms.

He estimated that fewer than 15 companies like GreenTech Agro are operating commercially in the U.S.

Most controlled growing environments, like greenhouses, use natural sunlight. But the main draw of not relying on sunlight is the ability to produce food locally year-round, he said.

The costly equipment has prevented the technology from taking off, Higgins said.

Behrman shelled out the high upfront costs for GreenTech Agro, buying the shipping containers, lights and other equipment. But he said the technology gets cheaper every year.

The Growtainer takes up much less space than traditional farming, and Behrman says crops can grow nearly twice as fast as they would in the ground.

Take one of Behrman’s plants: Adenium obesum, or the desert rose. Desert roses are ornamental plants. He grew them in a nursery in Thailand and says he could sell nearly half a million each year.

After 30 days in the Growtainer, his desert roses have much more side-growth, a measure of good health, than is typically expected, he said.

Because his sunless farming is so new, there’s room for Behrman to experiment. Right now, he’s testing different light combinations on each rack.

The spectrum of light controls the way the plant grows, and the intensity of the light controls the photosynthesis, he said. On some shelves, he’s using more red light, and on others more blue. Some of the plants, he said, respond significantly better with certain combinations.

The Growracks can also irrigate the plants a few different ways. On some, water fills the racks and drains away three times a day. On others, a thin film of water runs through the racks constantly.

Light and irrigation preferences aside, Behrman said the operation is quite simple. “It’s all a big Excel spreadsheet,” he said. “You put in the temperature, the humidity, the fertilizer and the water. It’s easy to arrive at the perfect environment.”

The Growtainers are already for sale, and the first of the finished Growracks will be ready to sell soon. Growtainers go for $75,000. The racks will be $3,000.

Behrman said a number of growers have expressed interest in the Growtainer. In particular, marijuana growers have been calling and emailing Behrman. But he’s not interested in participating in their business, and none of the inquiries has turned into a sale.

Behrman expects experienced farmers to be interested in the Growtainers. But for the Growracks, he thinks the market lies in grocery stores.

“If I’m right, I can change the produce system,” he said. “If you put the Growracks in grocery stores, you can’t get any fresher than that.”

He expects that marketing his products will be difficult. But he’s optimistic that GreenTech Agro will be a profitable company next year.

Behrman never studied horticulture. Working with plants was just an idea he had in his early 20s.

“One morning I woke up and decided that plants were going to be ‘in,'” he said. “So I talked to people at flower shops and garden centers, and slowly began to have an idea of what it was all about.”

He started with Plant Shed, a small retail store in New Haven, Conn. Over the next 20 years, he expanded the business into a regional chain. From there, he branched out. He owned nurseries in Florida, an orchid nursery in Thailand and tree farms in Vietnam.

In 1994, he moved to Bangkok, Thailand, to focus on his orchid nursery. While living in Asia, he dabbled in startups and served as an adviser to the Cambodian ambassador to the United Nations. His last job before returning to the U.S. was at a large resort in Vietnam, where he worked as landscape project manager.

He said the horticulture industry has made him a better person. He’s constantly learning about plants and about the people and cultures.

“I’ve had a career that most people only dream about,” he said.