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Vertical farm coming to Luzerne County

Leafy greens, like romaine and spring mix, and herbs will soon sprout up inside a large nondescript warehouse in Luzerne County.

Last week, Governor Tom Wolf’s office announced Crop One, a Massachusetts-based company, has negotiated a lease with PNK group to open a 316,000-square-foot vertical farm at 405 Stony Creek Road in Hazle Twp.

“There's all these shortages, supply chain issues, because most of our food in New England comes from the U.S. Southwest,” said Craig Ratajczyk, CEO of Crop One Holdings. “There's a multitude of environmental problems going on out there. So for us … that's what's planned for PA.”

They are expecting to commercially ready by late summer, early fall 2024, he said.

Inside the technology-driven farm — the second for Crop One — seeds are planted in water in stacked trays, said Ratajczyk. Since the farming is done indoors, they don’t have to battle with the seasons or outside elements like droughts or floods. Since the plants grow from just water, they don’t need to worry about soil conditions.

“With outdoor agriculture you have to have chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides to really control Mother Nature,” he said. “We don't claim to be Mother Nature but I would say the first cousin to Mother Nature … we don't want to have to use any of these chemicals or ‘cides’.”

Ratajczyk says GMOs — or genetically modified organisms — are often used to help manage outside crops productivity.

"For us on the inside, we don't need that kind of technology," he said. "So you really have a product that is harvested at the right peak freshness, the right nutritional profile, and it's on your shelf in a day or two."

As for choosing the location for the farm, Crop One looked at the consumers.

"There's around 50 million consumers in this area,” he said. “That's the largest population density out of the country.”

The location is also logistically centered between two interstates with access to hit all of those consumers.

“And frankly, on a local basis, just … a great community to be in," he said.

The company received a funding proposal from the Department of Community and Economic Development for a loan of up to $3 million through the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority and $200,000 in state grants. Crop One committed to investing a total of $105 million into the project as well as to create at least 40 new full-time jobs within three years, according to the state.

Ratajczyk said the jobs will range from a general manager and plant science team members to engineering, automation and production crew members.

The Hazle Twp. location is Crop One’s second vertical farm location. The first is in Dubai. The Middle East location produces 6,000 pounds of leafy greens. Ratajczyk expects the Hazle Twp. location will produce 15,000 pounds at the seven-acre location.

Their greens are sold in grocery stores as Fresh Box Farm products. They are also available for white label, which means another company can work with Crop One to put their label on the package, he said.

In the future, they could grow berries at its Luzerne County location, he said.

Ratajczyk said 5% of consumable products are grown inside. He got his start in traditional outdoor agriculture and does not believe it’s going away anytime soon. But the United States is a heavy consumer of leafy green products.

“So nothing but upward potential," he said.

Crop One is the second indoor farm coming to Luzerne County.

Upward Farms, a Brooklyn-based company, is opening a 250,000 square-foot indoor aquaponic farm in Hanover Township. They received a $1 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant from the state to complete the project. The company uses fish waste to fertilize its plants. The farm is expected to be operational by early 2023.

“I'm surprised more vertical farms or indoor agriculture is not blossoming every week or every day in Pennsylvania. It's just a great location,” Ratajczyk said.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.