Local business practicing indoor farming and hydroponic growing methods

VERONA, Va. (WHSV) — There may not be much farming going on in the winter in the valley, but one local business says they can grow produce rain or shine, hot or cold, as they explore the growing world of indoor farming.

A company called AUTOCROP in Verona is using LED lighting, vertical farming and hydroponics to grow produce indoors. This means they don't have to deal with most of the challenges and unpredictability involved with typical outdoor farming.

AUTOCROP branched off from a company called Sonaray, which creates LED lighting products. Now they're testing out using those lights to help grow produce.

"We think we can really do some things that will benefit people," said Ken Bryant, director of marketing for AUTOCROP. "It will be a good market for us, and it will really disrupt the way people look at farming."

They're also using hydroponics to grow the plants. This means no soil is used — just water with a solution that has all the nutrients the plants need. They say this can be beneficial compared to growing with soil.

"When you're outside in the dirt, there's air gaps and stones" says Paul Edmondson, a grower and researcher.

But with hydroponics he says, "all of the surface area is available to absorb the nutrients in the plant, making it grow significantly faster."

There are plenty of benefits according to the company. They say the environment is perfectly controlled, so they don't have to deal with unpredictable weather.

"I mean it's pretty cool if you think about here it is February, yesterday we had an ice storm, we're growing strawberries. Where else do you see that?"

They say it's also much more predictable.

"We can tell you pretty much down to the day when a crop is going to be ready," Edmondson said. "I spent an awful lot of years growing outside and I would be happy with a week, knowing which week it was going to be."

One of the biggest benefits, they say, is growing this way is much less expensive with no need for pesticides or herbicides, which can also yield a higher quality product.

"My vegetarian daughter was by and she's eaten a lot of lettuce in her day, and she says this is the tastiest lettuce she's ever had."

Growing faster is one of the goals of the company, along with increasing the volume of plants they can grow. There are 1,600 plants at the AUTOCROP facility, but there are systems that can produce millions of plants per month.

This business started about a year ago, so they're still in the process of finding out what plants respond best to this system. As they continue to grow produce to find that out, they donate it to a local food pantry.

They say vertical farming and indoor farming is vital for the future, as the population grows and there is less space for farming. They want everyone to have access to high quality produce.

Bryant says the main goal of the company is to make good food more accessible to everyone.

"We want to do good," Bryant said, "and we feel like this gives us the opportunity to do that."