Guess what happened today?
Dr. Nate went to Milan again.
This time, he’s not there to check on the USA Pavilions’ giant vertical farm, but to address a question that immediately arises when a pro-organic consumer (or farmer) looks at the world’s largest food producing green wall.
The Organic Trade Association invited us to discuss how organic principles meshes with hydroponics and vertical farming.
Here’s what Dr. Nate had to say about the values behind ZipGrow (transcript)
Dr Nate Storey is introduced.
Dr. Nate: I’m Nate Storey. My company is Bright Agrotech; we manufacture and design high intensity production facilities. This is a really great place to talk about what we do because we’re standing right next to the green wall that is full of our production towers.
So we are a startup company - a brand new company - and we specialize in production equipment. We focus on designing the equipment that allows people to grow more produce in less space. The heart and soul of our technology and our company of course is the ZipGrow tower, which is what you’re look at over here. (Gestures to Pavilion's Green Wall)
The tower started as part of my research at the University [of Wyoming] and I turned it into a company once I graduated. We started this company. We’re in a tiny town in Wyoming in the middle of nowhere in the US and it’s ironic now that we find ourselves growing in urban environments - in cities all over the world.
Our company is almost more of a design company than a manufacturing company in a lot of ways, because we try to solve problems with every piece of equipment that we create.
We try to take something that many people are intimidated by or feel is complex and [we] simplify it. Being in the United States, in a place where there is not enough water, much of the time we focus on water conservation as well.
Part of our core philosophy is making healthy food more available to everybody. Much of that comes down to where it is grown and how far it travels from the producer to the consumer. We think that the outcome of this is essentially democratizing agriculture and giving more people opportunities to farm no matter where they are located. The end product of this is that we end up looking at cities and urban environments pretty often when we’re trying to find new places to grow and new ways to grow.
This is the ZipGrow Tower. It’s at heart of what we do. It’s a very simple growing technique that allows us to grow vertically, which means that instead of growing on a single plane, we can grow in a volume. So we focus on growing volume as opposed to growing space.
These are designed to increase production. When they’re stacked [grouped together in a space], we can typically increase the production (per square foot) by about three times.
They’re designed to be easily irrigated, and the media that’s inside them is designed to foster very diverse microbial communities, so it enhances the microbiology of the growing environment. And the reason for that was that we originally started our company by farming with [the towers] using fish waste.
So waste from the fish production was the hydroponic solution for our produce. That’s what we grew our produce on. The original idea was that we could use waste output from fish production. Beyond the simple biology we started to look at the user.
This is unique in the field because most production techniques don’t take into account the user.
We began to think very long and hard about the user experience with the technique itself.
We started as farmers. My company started essentially as a farming company. And as we began growing with our techniques, we realized that we needed to offer this equipment to the world. This gives us a very farmer-centric mentality when it comes to growing in our equipment.
Now much of our production happens in cities, and increasingly we’ve begun doing more indoor production, so using artificial light to grow plants in warehouses and unused spaces - any kind of undervalued space.
So we have a variety of different growers now, from people that are growing on the sides of buildings, to people who are growing in warehouses, to traditional greenhouses, to even setting these up in the field.
This here is a simple illustration of an indoor growing setup where we have the towers set up on racks and then lights that move back and forth on robotic light movers.
Another aspect of our technology is that it is very modular, which allows us to do live sales in supermarkets. This is really important to producers because 60% of their costs is post-harvest labor and packaging. That means that in the Unites States, when you buy a head of lettuce for a dollar, the farmer is only getting forty cents of that.
So the farmer will take the tower full of produce directly to the market, and the consumer will harvest it at the markets, package it, take it home- and do all of that work and packaging for the farmer. The funny thing is that the consumer is willing to pay more to do the work for the farmer.
It’s a good model that we’re getting a lot of traction with in the United States, and that I think is helping farmers to get a lot more money while simultaneously delivering much more value to the consumer.
As part of our model now we’ve gotten away from being entirely about hardware, and are focusing a lot more on education. Most of our customers are brand new to farming. So much of what we do is we help farmers get started. We give them the education and the confidence to start a business.
Around our models we’ve built an online university and a peer-to-peer sharing network. This allows people to get started, it gives them confidence, and makes them feel comfortable with going out and starting a business.
The second aspect of that is software. Now we create software that helps these farmers manage their farms, and takes something that took many years of expertise to do traditionally and simplifies it to the extent that people can get going very quickly and be effective right off the bat.
I’ve got a couple slides here of some examples of our farmers.
This is a farm called Local Greens in Berkeley, California. They grow in a warehouse that is attached to a Whole Foods super market. Basically the food gets carted about fifty feet from the growing facility to the consumer.
This is a picture of a Freight Farm, or a container farm, and these are another way that our customers are using towers to grow with. They can literally pack an entire farm into a freight container. This is becoming increasingly popular for restaurant sales or people who want to grow on a smaller scale to supply a restaurant with green produce.
And of course, the model that I have most excitement about is vertical growing like this wall here.
Do you have questions for Dr. Nate?