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For Farmer Dave and indoor farming, things are looking up


The white windowless box surrounded by heat-cracked asphalt gives nothing away. There's a discreet sign: Uriah's Urban Farms.

It doesn't look like much. But Farmer Dave Smiles has invested a lot of sweat and brain power in this.

When it's running at full capacity, the 24,000-square-foot warehouse will grow about eight football fields of produce. It will accomplish this using 5 percent of the water of regular farms. It will do this with no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. And it will employ one of the world's most energy-efficient lighting systems.

If all goes as planned, it will become one of the three largest indoor farms in North America. But for Smiles, that's not all that's at stake at his farm, named for his son Uriah, 8.

Smiles, 38, has spent his whole life planting, growing, making decisions based on his green thumb. The choices — good and bad — have gotten him to this place that could shape not only the destiny of agriculture, but of his family.

He pauses before opening the door to a room bathed in an eerie pink glow.

"What you're about to see is the future of food."

• • •

We might run out of things to eat.

Conservative estimates say world population will be 9 billion by 2050 and we will need 60 percent more food. Farmland is shrinking. Think housing developments, outlet malls, climate change.

How to make more food on less land — this is the conundrum. Smiles' answer: Go vertical.

For the Tampa-raised entrepreneur who is almost universally known as Farmer Dave, it is the next step in a long journey.

I met him two years ago when he grew 2,600 plants on a 120-foot "living wall" at Ybor City's Roosevelt 2.0, a now-closed mixed-use arts space. Folks would wander in and scratch their heads: Was this lush garden — three types of tomatoes, four types of peppers, fairy eggplants, herbs, greens and five types of lettuce — art? Or was it commerce?

Smiles didn't much care, but his mission was clear: Commandeer unused urban space to grow things to eat.

Smiles started early. A typical North Tampa suburban kid, he grew up playing baseball, soccer and golf. His mother was a homemaker, his father an entrepreneur in the recycling business who put his son to work in the warehouse when he was 6 or 7. By 17, Smiles had his own aquatic landscaping business building ponds and water features. He was big into ornamental koi.

From there, his fascination with aquatic plants and hydroponics grew. In the late 1990s he started growing produce for chefs, culminating in his overseeing a 10-acre hydroponic farm in Lithia.

And then there was 2008.

• • •

Uriah was born. At full term he was 4 pounds, 6 ounces. At eight months Smiles and his wife started noticing delays and Uriah had his first grand mal seizure. But there was no diagnosis.

The costs of having a special-needs child began to weigh on Smiles. He was a farmer. He knew how to grow things indoors, things that are extremely profitable. Like marijuana.

His pot dabbling had started out small. In 1998, at 21, he had been arrested for possession of marijuana and later that year for growing it; two years later there was an arrest for manufacturing pot. But then, for years, nothing.

Until 2008.

"I made a poor decision," he said. "I'm not proud, but I'm not ashamed. It wasn't a career. I knew people making $4,000 a pound. If I could get away with it for a short period of time, it could stabilize my family."

Based on a tip — and after checking his electric bills against those of the neighbors (Smiles was using double the electricity) — police arrested him for felonious trafficking, cultivation and possession of marijuana. In the Temple Terrace grow house, police found 280 plants, a fancy lighting system, high-pressure fans and filters.

Smiles did six months in a minimum security federal prison camp in Pensacola, six months of house arrest and three years of probation. When he got out, he was done.

"As long as the federal government still classifies pot as illegal," he says, "I will not grow it."

• • •

Smiles went back to traditional crops, approached untraditionally.

Building on his horticultural knowledge, in 2010 he began researching "green roof and wall" technology. Eventually he concluded that rooftop gardening wasn't viable in Florida — too hot and sunny — but he started tweaking and tinkering with the wall design, applying for patents for some of the technology: traveling banks of lights that work robotically; microclimate control zones; capturing and reusing the plants' evapotranspiration, the passage of water through a plant to the atmosphere — plant sweat.

His landlord, the Roosevelt 2.0 experimental retail and art/craft space, didn't generate enough revenue to be sustainable, so Smiles had to dismantle his equipment and move on.

Smiles moved his operation to an interim warehouse on Shadowlawn Avenue in Tampa and ramped up production, providing living plants and his "iVertical Gardens" to more than 25 restaurants and hotels in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando and Sarasota.

Smiles says the farm will deliver 250,000 live plants each month to restaurants, food processors and you. The plants grow swiftly and are harvested in long white modules that contain the plant, roots still firmly in their medium, a proprietary mix of organic material.

The farm aims to serve restaurants, retailers and more than 100,000 households in Central Florida, the homes with a weekly "iGarden" delivery. Think of it like a live Blue Apron subscription box. For $30 delivered, customers get a container of six living plants, largely lettuces and herbs. Snip, then salad. At the week's end, the medium goes back to the urban farm for recycling and you get six new living plants.

You'll see walls of Smiles' greens at Marchand's Bar & Grill and Birch & Vine in St. Petersburg, and Louies Modern in Sarasota, and you can buy them, still potted, at Locale Market in St. Petersburg.

"It's so visual, it draws the eye, for sure, and customers get it immediately," says Michael Cohen, vice president of operations at Locale. "I've worked in the produce industry for years, and this is gorgeous stuff. It can't be any more fresh than something alive."

• • •

Indoor farming is electricity intensive and produces a lot of heat. Or it used to. What Smiles is doing is literally cooler.

"It's disruptive technology, doing something entirely different from the traditional agriculture system," says Brian Althaver, president of Uriah's Urban Farms, who spent 15 years as a corporate officer for Jabil.

The farm moved to the new facility in May, installing vertical racking, drip systems, floor drainage and robotics to help Smiles reach the plants. He hired 13 employees.

But it was when the farm began converting to cutting-edge, rosy-hued Philips and then Illumitex LED light modules — what Smiles calls his Generation 2 lighting — that it managed to reduce its electricity consumption by 70 percent. It saved money. It could make the business work.

"It's focused spectrum light," Smiles explains, the rest of his description sounding more like a Pink Floyd lyric than science: "All the noise is taken out of the light so the plant gets just what it needs."

Efficient vertical farms are spreading into urban spaces around the globe. The largest, FarmedHere, opened in 2013 in Bedford Park, Ill., with 90,000 square feet of aquaponic farm. A farm in a defunct Sony factory in Japan opened in 2014 and harvests about 10,000 heads of lettuce daily. And by the end of 2015, a converted steel factory in Newark, N.J., will be transformed into 69,000-square-foot AeroFarms.

The United States has 90 million acres planted to corn, largely for animal feed, and all fruits and veggies are grown on 10 million acres. The value of everything farmers sell is $400 billion, says Patrick Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri. Laura Batcha, CEO and director of the Organic Trade Association, says organics account for just 5 percent of total food purchases.

Indoor vertical farming is a minuscule fraction of that. But maybe not for long.

One study Smiles likes to cite says indoor farmers produced $300 million in produce in 2013. In five years, that number is projected to be $2 billion.

It will be an uphill battle, says John Matthews, who runs Suncoast Food Alliance, a Florida produce middleman that connects farmers and chefs.

"I'm seeing more vertical farms in urban areas where space is limited," he says. "And they are beautiful to look at. In the food toolbox it's another option. For feeding everybody, it's going to take all of it. At this point it's fair to say that vertical farming is more expensive. But as new technology comes on, I can see that improving."

• • •

You can't help but ask the question.

In this era when some states are decriminalizing marijuana, could Smiles be setting up his indoor farm as a placeholder until Florida follows suit?

Is this a big grow house in waiting?

He says all his patented technology, designed for dispersing light at low levels for delicate, soft-tissue kinds of plants, wouldn't work in a pot farm. In short, a vertical farm is poorly designed for that purpose.

That said, Smiles acknowledges a debt.

"If you look at the history of indoor agriculture, you have NASA trying to feed astronauts in space. But if it wasn't for underground illicit agriculture, the technology wouldn't be there. It's on the shoulders of all those who have been incarcerated that now growing food indoors is viable."

There's little consensus on how swiftly fresh vegetables lose nutrients. But walking along the rows of the vertical garden and nibbling green and red sorrel, bibb lettuces, chervil and lovage and genovese basil, it all tastes vibrantly fresh.

"The nutrient density of a plant decreases with the amount of time since it's been killed and shoved in a bag," Smiles says. "The thirst for this kind of thing is picking up."

His son Uriah was finally diagnosed a couple of years ago by University of South Florida pediatric neurologist Maria Gieron with GLUT1 deficiency syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that impairs brain metabolism.

Though there is no cure, a ketogenic diet has been found to be helpful — high fat, moderate protein, low carbohydrate. Something that helps: a clean source of vitamin-rich leafy greens.

Uriah is on a diet of the food his dad grows. He's a kid who eats kale and rainbow chard; his mom makes him salads of buttercrunch lettuce with a couple of slices of cucumber and tomato, maybe with a sprinkle of cheese and dressed simply with olive oil, salt and pepper. He uses a walker but is an active third-grader at an elementary school in South Tampa.

And Uriah's seizures have tapered off.

It's ironic, in a way. When Uriah started having problems, Smiles turned to growing marijuana, desperate to help his son. But what might actually help his son is right in front of him now.

In his office, away from the high-tech pink glow, Smiles riffles his hand across a box of delicate purple-veined baby chard. He pops a peppery arugula leaf in his mouth. Everything is fresh.

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.