Underground greenhouse may sprout up in copper mine

Michigan State Roundup

Published October 1, 1997  | October 1997 issue

A recently closed copper mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (U.P.) is drawing the attention of a Canadian company that wants to grow flowers, herbs and vegetables underground.

Since the White Pine Copper Mine closed in Ontonagon County in l995, leaving over 1,000 unemployed, local and state officials have been searching for new businesses to replace those jobs. Prairie Plant Systems Inc. of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a Canadian biotechnology company, may have a lucrative solution for 24 acres of mine space.

Based on a successful pilot project at the Flin Flon copper mine in Manitoba, Prairie Plants Systems has proposed a one-year pilot project at White Pine to establish a 10,000 square foot underground growth chamber that may eventually develop into a full-scale business, which could employ from 70 to 100.

Prairie Plants Systems president and chief executive officer Brent Zettl believes the White Pine mine project could be commercially viable. Zettl points to the consumer base of more than 25 million within a 10-hour drive from the UP mine, with markets for produce in Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland and even New York. In addition to restaurant and supermarket sales, Zettl says that producing plants for pharmaceutical companies could be very profitable.

What makes the copper mine a perfect environment is the abundance of carbon dioxide in the air and the optimal growing conditions that can be created and controlled underground. By regulating growing conditions—that is temperature, light, nutrients and water—the plants can focus on growing without any setbacks caused by insects, drought or wind.

At Flin Flon in a 1,000 square foot space, the company has grown 200 different varieties of plants ranging from hibiscus to roses to herbs and woody plants, such as Saskatoon berries, and compared their growth with those in a standard greenhouse environment. What has been learned from that project is that plants grow and mature at an accelerated pace in a controlled underground climate. More than a thousand roses bloomed from 80 bare stems in three months, herbs grew from seed to first harvest in six weeks and berry bushes grew four to five times faster than in an above-ground greenhouse situation.

The White Pine pilot project, which would be the third underground growing chamber in existence and the first in the United States, will cost about $500,000. It is expected to get under way about six months after governmental approvals are received and a number of other issues decided.

Dorothy Bussiere, administrative secretary of the Ontonagon County Economic Development Corp., expects the project to proceed because it has been well received by the Michigan Environmental Quality and Agriculture departments and other agencies. And with an unemployment rate nearly twice that of the UP as whole—9.3 percent at the end of September—Ontonagon County would benefit from jobs created at the mine.

Kathy Cobb