City of Agriculture: An old, urban factory is now a site for high-tech farming

Cities are engines of our local and national economies, and centers of creativity, culture, and entertainment. But they are under more pressure than ever. This is the latest in a monthly series, The Case for Cities, that will look at how Cincinnati and similar cities can grow by becoming places of choice, as well as models of social justice.

The three-story brick building with steel windows was built in 1920 in downtown Hamilton, Ohio to house a dealership that sold and serviced the most exciting new product of the early 20th century – the automobile.

The Miami Motor Car Company sold and serviced the Nash and Cadillac brands popular in those early days of transportation powered by the internal combustion engine. In the central business district of downtown Hamilton, land was at a premium, so the building was multi-storied, and a freight elevator transported cars from one level to another.

The building soon outgrew its usefulness for selling cars and evolved through a variety of utilitarian incarnations, including a furniture warehouse. Until 2017, when it was purchased by a young company called 80 Acres Farms and transformed into an indoor farm. Today, the Miami Motor Car building houses more than 3,000 cherry tomato plants, a veritable tomato factory, one of 80 Acres’ first efforts at controlled-environment agriculture, and a consummate example of how old, urban, industrial structures can be transformed into new, viable uses, rather than be allowed to rust away.

“It’s an amazing adaptive reuse,” says Joshua Smith, Hamilton’s city manager.

The old Miami Motor Car CompanyThe South Second Street building is known as “Vine” among 80 Acres’ staff. Inside it are thousands of tomato vines, bearing the red fruit in various stages of ripeness. It is a high-tech, controlled environment optimized for growing the little red fruit perfect for salads or just eating alone.

80 Acres was founded in 2015 by Mike Zelkind and Tisha Livingston, two refugees from the corporate world of Big Food. A watershed moment in their collaboration came around 2014 when they were working to turn around a vegetable canner in Arkansas that was in bankruptcy and had been found responsible for a large fish kill in a local waterway.  How is it that a food factory uses so much pesticide and fertilizer that the runoff from the plant killed everything in the stream, they wondered.

Then, in meetings with local farmers, they heard of the difficulties of growing crops in a changing climate: too wet one year, too dry the next. Too cold one year, too hot the next. There must be a better way, they thought.

They visited the Netherlands, renowned for its greenhouse technology, and Japan, where, in the years following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the government was investing in indoor farming to ensure the region could still produce food. They decided to integrate the two technologies, creating 80 Acres, funded partly with their savings.

Its first indoor farm was created in an old warehouse in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Spring Grove Village. The Vine farm in Hamilton was the second. The company now operates eight farms producing salad blends, greens, tomatoes, and basil. Its products can be found at more than 300 Kroger stores, as well as Whole Foods, Jungle Jim’s, and other regional grocers.  It’s currently building a farm inside a 200,000-square-foot former printing facility in Florence, Ky.

Inside the Vine farm, the air temperature, the light, the water, are all calibrated to cultivate rapid growth. And the bees. Bumblebees, actually, which are provided cardboard hives and a bounty of tomato flowers that need pollinating.

“Bumblebees are very, very efficient pollinators,” says David Litvin, the farm’s manager. Unlike honeybees, which carry pollen on their faces, bumblebees carry it on their back legs, a much larger surface, he explains.  “They can pollinate a lot more plants,” he says. They’re also a lot less aggressive than honeybees, a trait certainly appreciated by the farm’s employees.

Bumblebee hives inside the Hamilton farm.The bees are just one way 80 Acres has harnessed technology to enable a dozen or more harvest cycles a year in downtown Hamilton, compared to one or two for tomatoes grown in traditional greenhouses.

“We're using incredibly complex technology to do something incredibly simple and straightforward,” says 80 Acres spokesperson Jed Portman. “Give plants exactly what they need, use resources as efficiently as possible, and do precision agriculture in a way that has never been done before.”

The tomato seeds are germinated in a warm, humid environment, then planted and grown in rock wool, a fibrous material made from rock that has been melted and spun into fibers. Over the course of a little more than week, they’ll grow to a stage that would take more than month if grown outside.

“We set the air at a certain temperature that the young plants want. We provide humidity, light and CO2,” says Litvin. “It’s a perfect environment and very, very controlled and consistent, so we're able to push the plants and go much faster.”

He grew up in Israel, worked on a kibbutz growing dates, and met his future wife while they both served in the military there. She is originally from Cincinnati so, naturally, they moved here, where Litvin met 80 Acres cofounder Zelkind, who was just getting the company started. Litvin worked in a technology role in the Israeli military, and saw an opportunity at 80 Acres to combine tech with his agriculture background.

Litvin was christened “The Tomato Man” by the New York Times when it published a story on an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum that included 700 square feet of cherry tomato vines that he tended. When the Guggenheim closed during the pandemic in March 2020, the museum moved the exhibit to Fifth Avenue, displaying it behind a large, plate glass window bathed in the pink light spectrum that the plants prefer. The display drew crowds of New Yorkers bored with staying indoors in COVID-enforced seclusion.

“It also gave me like six months where I had nothing else but these 146 plants that I had to take care of,” Litvin says. “So I spent days just manufacturing these plants. I got to learn a lot more about tomatoes.”

Farm Manager David LitvinHe eventually traveled the world tasting tomatoes, including in the Netherlands. The Dutch are famed for their greenhouse technologies, and are the world’s second largest exporter of food, behind the United States, and doing it in a country about the size of Maryland. Netherland’s greenhouses produce about a million tons of tomatoes a year.

The country is also an exporter of agriculture technology. The Dutch pioneered much of the world's controlled-environment agriculture technology, one reason why the company’s wholly owned technology subsidiary, Infinite Acres, which designs and builds its indoor farms, is based in that country.

“Most of the terrain there isn't really suitable for growing, so they got heavily into hydroponics,” Litvin says. “They have very high-tech greenhouses.”

“Most of the world's controlled-environment, agriculture technology connects back to the Netherlands,” Portman says. “From the very beginning, we collaborated with Dutch controlled-environment agriculture companies to develop our technology.”

The Vine farm became a place to test growing methods, gather data and see what works best. The farms built since then are much larger, including the 200,000 square foot farm in Florence, Ky. It’s also building a similar-sized farm outside of Atlanta that will serve retailers in that region.

For the city of Hamilton, being able to repurpose an early 20th century industrial building, which the city has plenty of, into a key site for a growing, high-tech company, plays to its strengths as a city with character and history.

“Buildings like the Miami Motor Car Company are what sets Hamilton apart from other communities,” Smith says. “There isn’t any other place that has that kind of density of urban buildings. To be able to preserve that and put a new-generation business into it is a huge win.”

City leaders were so enamored of the startup that they agreed to host the company’s headquarters offices at city hall. The seventh floor of the Hamilton Municipal Building became the home office for the company, and City Manager Smith moved into temporary quarters down the street.

“Hamilton can’t compete with a West Chester or a Liberty Township because we’re a very different product,” Smith says. “We don’t have huge swaths of land that’s undeveloped waiting for the next Liberty Center or hospital to be built.”

And for an up and coming, environmentally sensitive, young business, locating in the city provides “a street grid and an urban fabric that allows the company to stand out in a unique way,” he says.

And the city of Hamilton can lay claim to one of the country's first indoor tomato farms.

You can read earlier articles in The Case for Cities series here.

You can view and listen to The Case for Cities conversation series here.

The Case for Cities: Cities of Choice are Cities of Justice series is a partnership between UC School of Planning and Soapbox Cincinnati, made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.