I’m not scribbling to declare right or wrong but simply to walk you down the gnarled path that led me to choose the growing methods that we’re pursuing. I salute anyone who can make money in the food business, whether it be farmers, ranchers, chefs, church folk fish fry’s, whatever, as long as they do it ethically. I know, that’s a chicken shit word in this trutherism time that can be debated extensively. But it sounds better than “I’ll salute anyone in the food biz that doesn’t treat me, it’s employees, vendors, community or customers like assholes.”
As kids, we spent time most summers at Zee Orchards, a peach farm in Mullica, New Jersey, owned by family friends. We helped in the packing house, worked with pickers in the orchards and did other odd jobs. Mostly we hung out and ate a lot of fantastic, lusciously sweet, almost custardy peaches while letting the bigger kids do most of the work. I was good at that part. Forty years later, I can still remember those farm smells, the diesel belching grumble of the tractors, a creamy cool shade in the packing house, the thrill of a tractor or forklift ride and the KACHUNK! KACHUNK! of the pneumatic staplers used to assemble packing boxes. In the preadolescent naïve bliss of that place, droughts and floods, fruit blights and fertilizers, powdery mildew and pesticides were never a consideration.
We moved to Florida in the early 80’s, barnstorming the state, looking for a place to land, exposed to the vastness of the agricultural landscape down there. The unending miles of citrus orchards, the plasticulture rows of strawberry fields and gut churning stenches of animal operations. The giant tractors tugging misty fertilizer sprayers and crop dusting airplanes efficiently covering the vastness of it all were indelible imagery for me.
Equally vivid were the mid-winter evening news reports showing farmers in their orchards during some freak ice storm that occurred after the fruit had set. These guys had propane smudge pots and other warming devices fired up all over the place, desperately trying to keep nature from destroying their livelihoods. Even worse was the farm foreclosure crisis of the mid-80’s, brain beamed to our “I Want My MTV” generation through the soundtrack of Mellencamp’s Scarecrow album and the advent of Farm Aid. Even at a young age, it was devastating to see the pain and despair of these folks who worked so hard to have it all go down the icy depths of hell.
Around that time, working for Doc Joseph, local farmers would come in throughout the summer with rickety, re-used baskets full of the best stuff that they pulled out that morning. These were frugal folks driving smashed-asshole pickup trucks, doing whatever they could to make a buck. He seemed to light up when they came in, occasionally calling some of us over to see the dirt mottled, electric colors and irregular natural shapes of this near perfect produce. Plant a seed, hard work, dirt, spray, pray, water, pray, harvest, rejoice. Simple stuff.
All of these experiences and time tainted memories helped me develop a soft spot (on my brain ?) for agriculture and its impact on my life as a food guy. It would be dishonest to say that I’ve thought about the production process of every case of iceberg lettuce I’d bought or the consequences of each paper wrapped crap’which I’ve snarfed down at quick serve joints. But probably more so than many, I’ve had a near life-long reverence for the folks that actually grow this food. The nagging question was, how could I become one of them and somehow not end up flat broke and busted like so many of them? Little pink houses and all.
The allegorical answer came to me through an externship tale from one of my CIA classmates, John Hebert. He was from Louisiana or Houston or some such place, was hearing impaired, with a big bushy mustache, ponytail and oversized bad teeth. Whenever someone called him, it looked like a squirrel nervously twitching and sniffing, trying to find the source of that acorn of sound, so we called him Chef Squirrel. During his externship at La Mela with a complete dickhead chef named Arturo, in the middle of the dinner rush one night, the chef stole Squirrel’s tongs and busted out the spring. On the line, tongs are everything, and busted tongs are almost as useless as a floppy willy; technically still a pecker, but not really good for anything more than pissin’.
He looked at Squirrel and shouted,
“What are you gonna do now cabrone?! What now?!”
Squirrel panicked for a moment in his most rodent way, spotted a metal packing strap on a box, took a cleaver and hacked off a five-inch chunk of it. He bent it into a u-shaped spring and inserted it into the tongs, getting them back to functional. The chef looked at him, laughed and said,
“Soluuuuutions. That’s what I like cabrone. Any asshole can come up with problems. Cholos that succeed have soluuuuutions.”
That theme sticks with me through today.
Indoor vertical farming (a form of Controlled Environment Agriculture aka C.E.A.) certainly seemed to provide solutions to a lot of agricultural issues. It eliminated the weather issues and the need for herbicides and pesticides. It greatly reduced the amount of water used, brought food production closer to the people, reduced fertilizers usage, decreased the food miles, drastically reduced the amount of land needed, and so many other problems facing conventional farmers. When I first saw articles about it, it was described as an almost miraculous process; the future of farming. The only nagging issues with it seemed to be the massive capital intensive nature of the equipment, the cost of utility inputs and actually achieving profitability. Not untypical of great future forward ideas.
The concept propagated around 1999 by Dr. Dickson Despommier, an emeritus professor of public health at Columbia University and his students in a medical ecology class. His “Vertical Farm – Feeding the World in the 21st Century” is one of the seminal texts on the subject. He’s been on TED Talks, a frequent guest speaker on news programs and conferences and one of the most public faces of the medium. In part from their work, this thing started to become an actual food production reality around the world. 18 years later, less than 1% of food is produced in controlled environment agriculture, but the market share is improving.
Approximately two years ago, while procrastinating on-line at work, I saw an article on the CNN web site about shipping container vertical farms. “This Farm in a Box Generates $15,000 a Month”
It featured a Boston based urban Farmer (career changer) who utilizes Freight Farms; converted old frozen shipping containers transformed into vertical farms for the low low price of $85,000 per box. (He was given a good deal and got five of them for $60,000 each because he was an early adopter.) Freight Farms is a Boston area startup that was founded specifically for the production of their shipping container farms.
See also: https://www.freightfarms.com/
These “Leafy Green Machine” container farms include a high density, hydroponic vertical growing system that is either the Bright Agrotech ZipGrow system or something pretty similar. A lot of people have seen these types of vertical indoor growing channels at Epcot Center at Disney World. The containers also contain LED lighting in an 80:20 red/blue spectrum yielding a plant friendly purple pink glow, CO2 generators, air conditioners, heaters, fans, a smartphone connected data logger and control system and a nursery space for growing seedlings. Supposedly everything a person needs to grow leafy greens, herbs and such vertically. Because all the inputs are controlled exactly, they purport to have very high yields, fast grow rates, consistent quality and very low labor. Best yet, the company works with a lot of career changer newbie farmers who had zero prior experience going in to the business.
In January of 2016, a second story appeared on CNN, also featuring Freight Farms and the same Farmer. “I Farm Inside a Used Shipping Container” 1/11/16
My interest continued to grow. The entry price on a single farm container seemed affordable and the technological sexiness of it meshed well with the startup hipster douche-y food world that was rapidly evolving. It looked almost easy. With up to 4,500 plant sites (depending on plant size – full grown heads of lettuce are less) and the production speeds described, it seemed like these things could really crank out a lot of food. I reached out to the company on multiple occasions, trying to get more information about crop yields and ordering processes but have never gotten a return call or email. I don’t care how well their web site and internet marketing machine is. If they can’t return a phone call or an email inquiry, the frustration isn’t worth it to me.
I found a second company on the net also marketing shipping container farms, Crop Box by Williamson Greenhouses. Williamson is a 30 year-old Clinton, North Carolina company that has a full line of tradition greenhouses in addition to the shipping container farms.
Similar to Freight Farm, Crop Box is a fully integrated, hydroponic micro-farm with smart phone controller, automatic nutrient dosing, HVAC control, CO2, etc.… They utilize stacked nutrient film technique (NFT) hydroponics versus the Bright-type vertical channels, have T5 florescent lighting (with LED’s optional) and have approximately 3,200 plant sites. Most importantly, the price per unit was only $50,000. When I contacted Crop Box to get more details, they responded almost immediately and provided a ton of info. From crop yields and recommended cultivars to power consumption and plant foods, I believe they are very customer focused and transparent.
The general concept started taking shape of building this scalable farm in an urban location, with the long term goal of having multiple locations in multiple cities. Using Crop Boxes, having the flexibility to move containers from one location to another as business demands changed seemed logical. (Both companies’ notion of stacking containers vertically seems ergonomically impractical to me, but multiple side-by-sides seemed like it would work.)
Around this time, I also started thinking about the practical concerns of the operation. First off, what was the potential return on investment? The casino career had been kind to me, and I could accept taking some steps backwards financially, but eventually, I wanted to be further than I was now. Fair profitability was foremost in my mind. I’d also need separate, clean and efficient spaces for storage of growing and packing supplies, preferably a covered loading area, refrigerated storage for harvested produce, a bathroom, land, etc.….
Plant thoughts swirling in my head kept me up at night; surfing the web, self-educating (medicating) about C.E.A., hydroponics and vertical farming. I needed some way to cut through all the chatter and to get some experience with the systems. In one grower’s chat room, I found a reference to the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. Pulling up their site, I found that they offered intensive courses in greenhouse operations, available to the public. I signed up for their Lettuce Intensive class, a semester of material crammed in three 12 hour days at their facility in Tucson. I was nervous that this class would be over my head. Between flight, hotel and course fees, I was concerned that I was spending a couple of grand on something that I wasn’t fit / experienced enough / smart enough / focused enough to do, but I was compelled to go forward with it. If I truly wanted to get in this business, I had to understand it as best as possible.
The night before heading out to Arizona, I was reading a Freight Farm discussion board. Much of it was general questions and answers that were pat with all of the information on their web site. Deep down through the threads, there were some grumblings that their stated results were exaggerated. One post in particular seemed to be from either a very experienced farmer or an agricultural academic. This person vigorously pointed out challenges in their claims on crop yields, number of actual plant sites in the unit, comparisons to conventional agriculture, water savings, and more. He was professional in his tone, but very detailed in his counter arguments. It was the first inkling that there might be a certain amount of bullshit with it all. Knowing that I’d committed to taking this course, I started getting nervous. Was this whole thing going to be for nothing? Fuck. What was real? Really? Did the emperor wear clothes?
The U of A course was incredible. Along with Cornell University and the University of California Davis, these were the leading C.E.A centers in the country. The class I attended was being taught by a rock star list of hydroponic experts, including Dr. Merle Jensen (one of the dogfather’s of CEA and founder of the U of A’s program), Dr. Gene Giacomelli (Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering & the Director of the CEAC), Dr. Stacy Tollefson (Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering) and Myles Lewis (one of their top graduates). These folks have done pioneering work all around the world, including with NASA, the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica, the USDA and a myriad of other projects.
My fellow classmates were from around the world, with experiences as varied as multiple plant science PhD’s, bioengineers, plant pathology experts, experienced growers and a few complete newbies like me. It was an absolute rollercoaster ride for three days; returning to the hotel each night exhausted from the hyper-infusion of information, like hooking a firehouse of information up to my ear hole and power forcing it into my brain. They covered the basics of greenhouse structures, environmental control requirements, food safety and GHP/GAP certification, organic hydroponic production, environmental control and monitoring, integrated pest management and diseases, economics of product, packaging and marketing and more.
Most of the production methods focused on greenhouse based deep water culture hydroponics (similar to Kratky method), but there was a little bit of exposure to aqua culture, ebb and flow, NFT and indoor vertical growing. This method couldn’t be any simpler; grow some seedlings, plop them in a Styrofoam lettuce raft in an open top tank of nutrient solution and let the sucker grow. No moving parts, no pumps.
There were huge highs of, “I can do this!” and intense swings of foreboding failure throughout the course (similar to some of my undergraduate work). Several of these professors put their money where their mind was, running farms in their own right while teaching full time. They were teaching from both academic and practical perspectives.
One of the interesting side bits of it all was that one of the course instructors, Myles Lewis, actually owns the patent on shipping container greenhouses; he showed it to us and talked about his process for getting it. This raised additional flags about doing business with Freight Farms or Crop Box. Neither had gotten permission from him, and I didn’t want to get my hard earned money tied up in that fight. Myles was also fairly candid about what it cost him to put the unit together, which was a fraction of the price of either of those units.
Throughout the course, I was still leaning toward indoor vertical agriculture, but all the Professors were persuasive in their arguments of the efficiency of greenhouses. There was also a tranquility to the lab time working in the greenhouses that I can’t describe. I felt like I could breathe again for the first time in a long time.
The one thing I knew for certain was that this course was the best investment I could have made before stepping into the CEA arena. My decision making was so much better informed, derived from non-partisan, non-profit industry experts. I was finally able to cut through so much of the marketing chatter that I’d been inundated with.
When I got back to the ‘Burgh, four revelations gob smacked me about which way to proceed if this was the path we were going down.
- Go Big or Go Home
From the business section of the course, it was clear that we needed to grow the right high value crops in a large enough quantity to make reasonable dough, choose the right high profile location where the customers with disposable income are, and market the hell out of our product in the sexiest ways possible. We could never compete with the commodity iceberg lettuce biz, but we can crush it we specialty greens, lettuces and herbs.
Also tittering in shipping containers might work for some, but inefficient for where we want to be.
- Fer Fooks Sake, It Better Be Colorful
Discussing options with Liz, she and Kevin both felt that focusing solely on lettuces, microgreens and herbs was too constrained, lacking the color and variety to really make a splash on the scene. Whatever crazy tech we used, it wouldn’t mean squat if we couldn’t sell it. This one was almost an allegory for the founding of our working relationship. More on this later. While vining crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers don’t command as high a price per pound as some of the other produce, and they take longer to grow, in order for us to be successful we need the marketability of raising a greater variety of products. Simple but brilliant.
None of these vine crops work well in shipping containers or other indoor grows; they require too much light.
- Bruce Bugbee (Professor of Crop Physiology – Utah State University) “Why Vertical Farming Won’t Save the Planet”):
Dr. Bugbee is another CEA rockstar and NASA researcher. I found this lecture on YouTube when I got back to Pittsburgh. It spelled out more clearly than anything that I learned anywhere, the mathematical and financial limiting inefficiencies of vertical farming compared to conventional agriculture. Bottom line is that purchasing energy for 100% of the light needed for plant growth is incredibly expensive.
Even using solar panels, it would take 5.4 acres of solar panels to produce the light necessary to cover 1 acre of vertical farms, utilizing the currently best available LED lights and the most efficient solar panels. Holy Light Crap Batman!
- Capital Cost Per Plant Site
The last thing that occurred to me was the equipment cost per plant site. We don’t have an unlimited budget and we need to get the most out of our capital dollars.
Freight Farm: $18.88
Based on their stated “Up to 4,500 plant sites”. Cost per plant site could be a lot more.
Does not include any construction costs or site preparation.
Crop Box: $15.63
Based on their stated 3,200 plant sites.
Does not include any construction costs or site preparation.
Green House: $10.78
Includes high estimate for construction costs
Includes NFT and Bato Bucket systems quoted to me by Crop King Greenhouse Company
One last consideration was the acquisition of land. We want to be part of the urban agriculture movement and want to locate near the communities in which we live. Land around Pittsburgh is going for $50K – $60K per acre. Coming from Las Vegas, this didn’t seem too unreasonable to me. But when Kevin started researching it on Grand Island, the price per acre around there was 60% less expensive than Pittsburgh. Marcellus Shale gas money that’s been dumped in to western Pennsylvania has made even marginal multi-acre parcels prohibitively expensive for a startup.
I’m very confident (and as always a little nervous) that we’ve found the solutions to our challenges. We’ve identified the growing methods that will get us the greatest yield for our capital dollar, are easily scalable as the business grows, therefore offering all the benefits of vertical grows without all of the excessive expenses associated with utility expenses for full time lighting and HVAC. As importantly we’ll be in a great community with a growing local foods scene and a high demand for premium products.
Our opening plans include over 8,000 sq.ft of gutter connected hydroponic and conventional greenhouse space on Grand Island, NY. Utilizing a combination of NFT, Bato Bucket and Deep Water Culture hydroponics, along with some bench top dirt and the support of the hands-on horticultural team at Crop King Greenhouses, we’ll be able to provide fresh, locally grown produce that is non-GMO, pesticide free, herbicide free, safe, clean, fantastically flavored and hopefully organic for the greater Buffalo community for years to come.