April 9, 2020 By Justine Jablonska 5 min read

Peas, carrots, tomatoes. Plus eggplant and a small patch of asparagus, and sometimes—leafy greens. All on a tidy, 20-foot square garden in Rockland County, New York. It’s here that David Del Pilar spent his childhood with his grandfather Luis. On Thursday afternoons, the duo planted and mended; on Sundays they harvested.

“Those are some of my fondest memories,” Del Pilar said. “I bonded with my grandpa tremendously, and it led to my love of the outdoors.”

Grandpa Luis’ garden regularly supplied the household—which included Del Pilar’s grandmother and aunt—with fresh vegetables. As Del Pilar grew up, he too planted his own small gardens or indoor plants wherever he lived.

BrightFarms head grower and plant scientist David Del Pilar. His tattoos are all science fiction themed; no veggie tattoos… yet.

Today, Del Pilar is the head grower and plant scientist at BrightFarms. He spoke to Industrious from his office in Rochelle, Illinois, located just steps from the greenhouses where he works with plants from seed through harvest.

The farm is an hour west of Chicago and produces one million pounds of leafy greens annually. It stretches across 160,000 square feet, and services supermarkets in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri with spinach, arugula, kale, romaine, beets, and basil.

Leafy greens grown with the help of data

BrightFarms greenhouses are hydroponic: crops grow in water versus soil. According to BrightFarms, the method uses 80 percent less water, 90 percent less land, and 95 percent less shipping fuel compared to field-grown produce from the West Coast, which is often shipped long distance to its end consumers.

Hydroponic plants grow year-round, which means that BrightFarms harvests fresh produce all year long. The benefits of hydroponics are immense, said Del Pilar.

“We’re giving our plants the best nutrients, the best light, and the best air conditions they could possibly have,” he said. That includes controlling the greenhouse temperature, ultraviolet light, humidity, water nutrients, and filtration.

Growing without soil ensures that the plants are ready to eat right at harvest, because the plant is clean, with no contamination. BrightFarms uses no pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. For pest control, Del Pilar and team use ladybugs and other insects.

The Rochelle greenhouse is in northern Illinois, which can be windy and cold for multiple seasons. Growing indoors means the ability to grow 365 days a year, and not having to wait for ideal outdoor conditions.

BrightFarms baby romaine leaves

“It lets us be where we want to be,” Del Pilar said, “and grow them perfectly. And as fast as we can.”

BrightFarms plants germinate for two to five days on styrofoam boards. The boards are then placed into hydroponic ponds, where they float on water. As the plants grow, they transition down the pod to make room for new boards with new sprouts. The greens are harvested anywhere from 14 to 25 days after being placed into the pond.

The styrofoam boards are reused several times before they’re taken out of rotation; each lasts a few months, according to Del Pilar. Once they’re no longer usable, he sends them back to the manufacturers to be recycled.

Other BrightFarms greenhouses are located in central Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia. Greenhouses are also set to open in North Carolina and Massachusetts. These will each have four acres of growing space and the ability to annually produce from one to two million pounds of leafy greens.

Improving food safety

Food safety is crucial to any farm and any harvest. BrightFarms greenhouses have fewer food safety risks because of their tightly controlled environments. BrightFarms is also part of the IBM Food Trust through its partnership with Walmart. IBM Food Trust uses blockchain to provide immediate access to actionable food supply chain data from farm to store to consumer.

Del Pilar and BrightFarms growers track each step of the plant growth cycle, product packaging and shipment with the IBM Food Trust Fresh Insights platform. All the data collected is safely encrypted using IBM Blockchain on the IBM Cloud.

On grocery shelves, retailers can add data to the platform about how long the greens have been at the store, and at what temperatures they’re being stored. The process ensures that customers are buying fresh products. It’s also crucial in the event of a food recall—though that is less likely with a controlled hydroponic environment. But if a recall needed to happen, BrightFarms could trace its products within seconds.

A day with Del Pilar, plant scientist extraordinaire

Del Pilar’s days on the Illinois farm start around 6:30 a.m. Though the crew comes in around 4:00 a.m., he doesn’t usually join them unless there’s something specific he wants to observe.

He begins with a morning huddle with the general and production managers. Together, they review the forecast and the day’s harvest numbers.

“We try to get as close to the forecast as possible,” Del Pilar said.

Then, he does walkthroughs of the greenhouse.

“I look at every crop,” he said. “I look at the harvest for the next day and see if we can foresee any issues.”

BrightFarms plants grow in an extremely controlled environment

Del Pilar takes daily metrics to measure pH, oxygen and nutrient levels. He makes sure the ponds are filled to the correct level and pays special attention to the transplants and germinations to see if any seasonal adjustments are needed.

“We have lots of things that need to be monitored constantly,” he said. “Lots of little bits and pieces.”

When Del Pilar first joined BrightFarms two years ago, he wasn’t a huge spinach eater. Today, it’s one of his favorite crops. He also loves beet greens.

“I eat them all,” he said.

Though Del Pilar has always loved gardening and the outdoors, he didn’t initially set out on farming as his career path.

“I’ve always had a great thumb,” he said, “but didn’t necessarily think, ‘oh, I want to be a farmer.’”

Once he settled on what he wanted to dedicate his life to, he studied hydroponic growing methods at the plant sciences program at the State University of New York.

His parents—a teacher and a probation officer—instilled in him the importance of community and giving back.

To Del Pilar, that sense of service and community is very real at BrightFarms.

“We’re providing a service to people. We’re feeding people,” he said. “And we’re doing it in a way that’s better for the environment. I love it.”

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