Lane Patterson ’04 ’11 Puts His Wildcat Stamp on New Agriculture

The Veggie Master
By:
Ford Burkhart, Jacob Chinn photo

When snow falls in Chicago next winter, happy veggies will be growing at 70 degrees not far away under the eye of Lane Patterson, one of the world’s top masters of indoor controlled-environment agriculture.  

As a UA student and staff expert, he succeeded in growing crops in Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth. He ran a farm-in-a-big-box prototype made for the moon — and perhaps one day for Mars. Now he’s shifting to Green Sense Farms, a giant, robotic growing chamber in northern Indiana, to serve a market of 20 million people within 100 miles, including Chicago and Detroit. A secret of its productivity is stacking the beds up — 10 stories high for now, even higher in the future. It’s called vertical farming, Patterson says. “We create level upon level upon level of crops.”

His farm delivers herbs like basil, arugula, cilantro, chives, dill, mint, oregano, parsley, and sage as well as high-end greens — baby kale, baby lettuce, and other microgreens. “We pick the young shoots of salad greens just after the first leaves emerge,” he says. “They can be on your plate within hours. Thus they are super tender. Excellent, every time. Excellent.”

He predicts his system will one day serve many countries.

“And why not other planets?” he asks. 

In his view, it’s more than just growing gourmet salads, consistently,12 months a year. “Being an urban farm,” he says, “we are improving agriculture itself.”

Patterson is one of dozens of UA graduates and students raising crops in controlled conditions using big science, computers, webcams, and lots of imagination.

He left the UA campus with a master’s in agricultural and biosystems engineering in December to direct plant operations at Green Sense Farms in Portage, Ind. As a graduate student, he made food flourish at the UA’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, or CEAC, in the Lunar Greenhouse, on campus, and at the South Pole Food Growth Chamber in Antarctica. Then Green Sense’s founding farmers, Robert Colangelo and Carl Wenz, recruited him. 

Says the CEAC director, Gene Giacomelli, “Patterson was the perfect person for this job.”  

Today, Swiss chard planted on Patterson’s watch at the Lunar Greenhouse is growing, in coconut husks for soil, under special LED lights in the demonstration chamber. Nearby is one of the most remarkable tomato patches in the world: a tube 8 feet in diameter and 18 feet long that Patterson operated for five years. It’s a lunar prototype, almost rocket ready, with the technology needed to sustain astronauts’ lives on the moon, a place with no air and temperatures from boiling to freezing. The machines recapture every drop of water, as well as oxygen, from the plants.

In addition to tomatoes, the lunar tube has grown lettuce, sweet potatoes, basil, and strawberries for outer space. In Antarctica, Patterson even grew tasty cantaloupes and 70 other plants during eight months of winter darkness, with temperatures as low as minus 100 degrees amid hurricane blizzards. 

Supplying grocers and restaurants in Chicago doesn’t involve the extremes of growing for the moon or the South Pole, but now Patterson has to deal with competition. His produce has an edge over plants grown in Arizona, California, Florida, or Mexico, though. Unlike greens that spend hours or days in transport, he points out, his will all be fresh and local.

A webcam records the UA’s plants every day. You can watch them grow at http://ag.arizona.edu/lunargreenhouse/.