(Photo: The Devil Strip file.)

Growing Akron: Vigeo Gardens brings year-round freshness to Northeast Ohio

by Ernest Cornelius

It’s almost overwhelming to walk into the lab, which occupies a 7,000-square-foot warehouse space on the manufacturing floor of The Akron Global Business Accelerator, formerly the BF Goodrich plant. The grow racks, specifically manufactured for form and function, reach all the way to the ceiling and only allow enough room between them to walk through very carefully, so as to not brush up against whatever may be growing on that particular rack. The LED lights give off a glow rivaling that of the sun, and the hum of the water pumps, cooling fans and window exhausts could lull you to sleep if you were left alone long enough. The south wall of the room is adorned with a large mural titled “Veggie Tales, The Savage Years,” hand-painted by the very talented Steve Ehret.

Vigeo Gardens offers high-quality, hydroponically-grown produce, and it is all brought together by a most unusual group of friends in their mid-twenties.

When Vigeo took off, Vincent Peterson was pursuing a vigeo-2degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Akron, and Jacob Crane was pursuing a degree in Biology on the same campus. Mark Preston holds a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering. With each of them bringing an important skill set to the company, their mission is to change the way produce is grown, purchased and received in our cities around the country.

That’s why they’re set up in an old tire factory, not a neighborhood garden or a rural farm.

“We chose vertical hydroponic farming for a number of reasons,” Jacob says, “In any urban environment, especially those found in downtown Akron, Detroit, Pittsburgh or anywhere along the rustbelt, farmland is scarce, and the landscape is generally filled with old factories.”

In other words, growing produce vertically indoors means supplying fresh local food year-round while also maximizing their space and repurposing old factories that are otherwise hard to fill.

“Through CEA, or controlled environment agriculture, we are able to produce the exact same product in July as we are in December, all while using no chemicals, no pesticides, and remaining bug-free,” Jacob says. “Our farm is extremely efficient, which aids in the cutting down of farm-to-fork wastage in America and [in providing] fresh local produce to urban areas.”

That makes sense coming from a biologist, but Mark’s education suggests he should be working at NASA instead. How does an astronautical engineer end up growing veggies in an old plant?

“I took to farming because of an interest in growing fresh produce that turned into a passion,” Mark says. “I wanted to find a way to pair that with my technical degree, and eventually the opportunity came and I was able to seize it. With my experience in 3D modeling software, I was able to create our grow systems as you see them today.”

The master plan is also about resolving inefficiencies in the food supply chain, which too often can mean that what’s sold as fresh produce in certain stores is actually coming from California, Mexico and Hawaii. Vigeo Gardens, on the other hand, wants to provide produce in Ohio that was grown in Ohio, 365 days of the year.

“Vigeo Gardens’ 5-year goal is to have a multi-acre, very diversified greenhouse pumping the best produce into the local economy,” Vincent says. ”After successfully implementing the first Vigeo Gardens’ produce hub, the 10-year goal is to take the brand and system national and build multi-acre greenhouse hubs across the country.”

Many in Akron think tech entrepreneurs have to build software or biomedical devices, but Jacob, Mark and Vincent are taking a different approach to create a lasting impression that could one day change the way millions of people eat. It’s only fitting that the Latin word “vigeo” means “to thrive” because that’s exactly what they’re striving to do at Vigeo Gardens.