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Old Silos in Downtown Springfield to be Used for Food Production

The MFA silos near Phelps and Jefferson have long been a feature of downtown Springfield.  Now—more than 60 years after they were built to store grain--they’re getting new life by local startup, Vertical Innovations, which is leasing them from Missouri State University.  KSMU's Michele Skalicky has more.

The 21 silos, which have been out of use about 15 years, will be used by Vertical Innovations to grow vegetables.  They’re leasing the structures from MSU at a cost of nearly $42,000 annually.

It all started when Jim Kerns approached his co-worker at Morelock-Ross, David Giesler, for help on a business idea he had.  Giesler loved the idea.

"I think it just shows the true skill set that Jim has to come up with an idea to, you know, turn these icons of the local agriculture industry back into productive facilities in the 21st century," he said.

Giesler is now manager and legal counsel for Vertical Innovations.

Kerns, who is head of the project, said the idea isn’t new—his grandmother used to grow food in stacked trays by her window.  And Gilbert Bailey published the book, “Vertical Farming,” in 1915.  It’s simple he said--not that anyone can grow, but anyone that studies the science and applies the methodology can grow something.

"The old timers are showing us through what they left behind that they were decades ahead of us," he said.

According to Kerns, the plan for the silos is to use aquaculture—both hydroponics and aquaponics--to grow mushrooms and lettuce symbiotically with less waste and less stress on fish used in hydroponics.

"We see hydroponics being in the bottom of these silos because they're perfectly designed fish tanks," he said.

They’re currently conducting a field test with a working two-scale model of one of the racks they’ll employ in a feasibility study in one of the silos, according to Kerns.  The feasibility study, which could begin in the fall, is expected to show the symbiosis of growing mushrooms and lettuce in the same space.

"Mushrooms put off CO2 that feed the greens.  The greens put off oxygen that feeds the mushrooms," he said.

After the feasibility study, they plan to begin a full-scale project incorporating both sets of silos.

Their customers will be local, according to Paul Tinlin, who’s responsible for marketing and processing (he’s the farmer of the group).  He said they’ll start by marketing to Springfield first and then to those in a 250 mile radius.

"We'll look for schools, hospitals, the institutions and then, of course, our local grocers," he said.

According to Tinlin, vertical farming can solve some problems that come with outdoor growing such as erosion, which he said could someday cause us to run out of farmland.  And he said theirs will be a secure food source.

The project is a collaborative effort, according to Kerns.  They plan to add to their team someone in academics, although he said they’re not yet taking applications.

"We're looking for that comprehensive-minded person of design and farming and construction and engineering principals," he said.

Eventually, Tinlin said they hope to work with the Missouri State University Agriculture Department on curriculum.  He said they believe they’ll be able to offer an educational opportunity for students.

"I see the potential as fabulous even at the least an emphasis for a degree if not an associate, and who knows?  Big time, hopefully they'll have even a section of the college ag department dedicated to aquaponics and hydroponics (vertical farming)," he said.

Allen Kunkel, director of Jordan Valley Innovation Center, which is next to the silos, said he’s excited about engaging Missouri State University students in the project through continued research or looking into new technology development.  And he’s happy to see an agricultural facility put back into production.

"It fits the vision for Idea Commons very well. Obviously, urban gardening and vertical gardening has been very popular across the country and across the world, for that matter, and to see a company interested in trying that project in our vacant grain silos to give them new life and new purpose is very exciting," he said.

Kerns said, once the project goes full-scale they believe the food grown in 12,000 square feet of space will equate to food grown on 150 to 200 acres of farmland.

He said they have their eye on three other properties in Springfield that could be used for a similar purpose.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.