Farm workers squat in fields of black dirt, planting. For unbroken acres, a green patina covers the dark soil. That’s the onions coming up. It’s May in Pine Island.
Up a driveway, past pyramids of industrial-sized shipping spools, around back, and through two doors, tomatoes are just beginning to ripen. If you’ve ever grown any food, you know that May is not the time of year for local tomatoes. But the fact that 96 heirloom plants are fruiting out of season is not what this story is about. Such feats can be accomplished using greenhouses and garden variety grow lights. What’s cutting edge about this operation — which has for a consultant a NASA scientist whose food experiments have flown on the space station — is what’s above, and below, the plants.
Above the canopy of vines hang light tubes, each tube made up of a 30 LED (light emitting diode) chip matrix, each chip matrix hand soldered using silver solder. These tubes have been designed to give plants exactly the wavelengths they need to produce their best fruit, cutting out the excess that the sun showers down on the earth. Primarily, plants need blue light, which stimulates stem and leaf growth, and red light, which promotes flowering and fruit. But they need a little green, too, to manufacture certain enzymes, although not as much as the profligate sun provides. That’s why plants and trees outside look green to our eyes; they are reflecting back the excess green light. The tomato plants in here glow a dance club purple.
“You could go blasting a 1000-watt halide light, and that’s a terrible waste of energy. That’s the brute force way,” said Bob Schluter, 55, the owner of Warwick Tomatoes. “We want to be as green with our artificial lighting as possible. That’s an oxymoron for you.”
Schluter is a grown-up wunderkind who dropped out of high school and, at age 19, invented the now-ubiquitous round metal speaker grille out of the basement of a recording studio in Astoria, Queens. But he never thought to patent it, so someone overseas tooled it up and put him out of that business. That’s when he started patenting his inventions, and he subsequently made a fortune manufacturing and patenting audio, video and electronics systems infrastructure in New Jersey. He sold that 600-employee business a few years ago and went in search of his next mechanical challenge. Enter the aeroponic tomato.
Schluter takes the front off one of a row of powder-coated stainless steel chambers to reveal the second innovation driving this experiment: each plant’s roots dangle naked in the air, a tangled mass that looks like long blonde hair on its way to dredlocks. Every ten minutes, black plastic mist nozzles pop and vibrate, spraying the roots with a fine mist of the nutrient solution du jour for about four seconds.
Aeroponics is a growing system that requires less space and a fraction of the water it takes to grow plants in soil or in water, and lends itself to scientific exactitude. The method has been around on a commercial scale for a few decades and is how, for example, much of the marijuana in this country is grown. But nobody has figured out yet how to grow aeroponic tomatoes on a large scale. That’s probably because of the tomato’s roots, Schluter conjectures, which get to be just as crazy as the vines. It’s tough and expensive to manage that much mass of root.
Exhibit A: a wilted plant in the corner hovers on the brink of no return. Number 42’s mist pump failed, and hours under a light, without a drop of water, spells devastation to a plant whose roots are suspended in thin air. The immediacy that makes aeroponics so efficient and precise is also what makes it unforgiving.
This glitch is hardly worth mentioning, compared to the grand failures that plagued the early crops (see sidebar). In the post Hurricane Sandy blackout, for instance, the back-up diesel generator ran out of gas and – despite attempts at hand-spraying the seedlings – eventually every plant was lost. This most recent pump failure is an opportunity in work clothes. “Every time something like this happens, we engineer a safety mechanism,” said Schluter. He’s working on a sensor that will monitor the humidity level, and if it’s too low, the lights won’t turn on.
“My thrill in life is solving mechanical challenges,” he said. “When I hear people have tried this and keep failing, I know there’s patents to be had.”
Bob Schluter comes from a long line of metal workers. It was a Schluter who fashioned the Chrysler Building’s stainless steel arches. Warwick Tomatoes, whose infrastructure is made of metal, is in a way the youngest branch of the family industry. There are, in fact, four generations of Bob Schluters involved with this project.
Robert George Schluter, 77, now retired, made his living as the head of the education department for the Sheet Metal Workers Union. These days he’s an avid gardener, and he designed the wire cages (which may well be patented) that keep the roots of the tomato plants spread out. Robert John Schluter, the inventor, is the owner not only of Warwick Tomatoes but also Warwick Valley Products, which is working on manufacturing affordable trackers that point solar panels toward the sun. Robert George Schluter, 31, has worked as a plant manager for an avionic metal company that contracted with Boeing and Lockheed-Martin on high-tech stealth equipment. Now he’s engineering one of the most sophisticated grow lights (also patentable) ever to coax a tomato to turn red – or black or yellow. And Robert Kurt Schluter, 4, sometimes uses a magnifying glass to find and remove insect invaders from the warehouse, but not before examining them under a microscope.
The younger Schluter, 31, has caught the inventing bug. Enthralled by lasers and robots, he regales a visitor with a scenario five years in the future, of a six-armed robot equipped with a smart camera that could roll amongst the tomato plants, scanning for red tomatoes which it would then grab with one arm and pick with another, while cutting off suckers with another pair of arms. Now that he’s working with his dad, the LED cowboy has unlimited funds to tinker. He designed and hand-soldered the control panel on the wall, the potentiometer or “pot,” which controls the voltage and colors of the light bars. “This,” said his grandfather, pointing at the box, “this right here is the magic.”
“I can go above what the sun puts out with blue and red,” said the younger Schluter. “People do light bars, but the plant is used to – for millions of years has evolved with – sunshine. I can bring the sun inside and still be energy efficient,” he said. “We’re advancing the science of light.”
By tweaking the plant food and the light combinations, not only are the Schluters working toward faster fruit development, but a superior tomato. They’re growing heirlooms to get back the taste that’s been lost in commercially produced hybrids, bred for their perfectly round shape and long shelf life. Each month they send leaves to the Cornell lab for a rundown of nutrients like calcium and magnesium, and they’ll be doing taste tests with the fruit that will help them narrow their selection down to the four heirlooms they will mass produce. Once they’ve selected the best plants, they will no longer grow from seed. Instead, they’ll clone mother plants by taking cuttings, and grow the mothers in a separate lab.
What’s happening in this warehouse is the prototype for a much larger operation that will take over a third of the former Georgia-Pacific plant in Warwick, which Schluter bought for $3.6 million in 2012. The Schluters plan to move there by May 2014, where they will be growing 3,000 plants and eventually, shipping out 3,000 pounds of tomatoes each day (only in the winter, when they won’t be competing with local farmers). If they can prove the commercial viability of the system, then they can either sell the patents, sell the brand and all of its equipment, or both.
Walk out of the purple lit laboratory and squint into the afternoon sun at fields of some of the richest soil in the country, and it’s easy to wonder: why? Why try to improve on what the dirt and sun already do perfectly well? The location is “incredibly ironic,” said Schluter, 55. “The fact that we have such high technology not using dirt, I chuckle all the time.” The company happens to be located in Warwick because Warwick is where Schluter lives, and Schluter lives here because he’s a tree hugger. But “you could do this anywhere.”
This system will make it possible to grow food in the winter or in the desert. “Imagine,” said Schluter, “a dense city area, where they could take a floor of an office building or an abandoned factory. This is a highly efficient way, where you don’t have light or much water, to grow food.” These are tomatoes for the future.
The Edisonian approachWe planned to write this story last year, but the tomatoes were having issues. Then they looked good... and something else went wrong. These emails to Dirt from Bob Schluter, owner of Warwick Tomatoes, explain why tomatoes and aeroponics don’t often appear in the same sentence.
10.24.12: Our winter crop (started 2 weeks ago) is doing well, but we have been having PH issues and are changing our nutrients today. The big flush. Easy with aeroponics however!
11.4.12: We just got our power on at the house but Pine Island (our crop of winter R & D tomatoes) is still out of power. We have a big diesel generator but it ran out of fuel. Got a delivery and we should be set for tomorrow. But the plants got ravaged. The poor little darlings are on the edge. One of the few disadvantages to aeroponics is you constantly need power for the mist pumps.
12.20.12: Tomato plants are tiny because we just germinated AGAIN. We re-started due to new info.
That’s the nature of R & D....1.2.13: Status = not good. We just tossed them all 2 days ago due to neut balance issues. We are going back to the tried n true stuff we used last year.
2.21.13: We found the root cause of all our tomato issues. It was material incompatibilities. More specifically, our stainless steel chambers were precipitating the salts out of the neuts and whacking the ph. And the nylon from our tubing was leaching into the solution. So we took it all apart, powder-coated the chambers and changed tubes and filters and are back up growing. In fact, growing like crazy just like we remember it from last year. Back then (if you remember seeing them) we were using plastic garbage cans for the root chambers. Silly me for thinking fancy stainless steel would be better...
4.24.13: Great timing. Things are growing very well- hundreds of tomatoes and 96 very happy plants.