Ag’s next wave of innovation goes floor to ceiling at growUp Farms.
There’s a farm in Rohnert Park that has been growing watermelon and sunflowers all winter. Its squash are in bloom and its cucumbers are setting. Even the tomatoes look great. This oasis of August isn’t outside, but rather inside the SoCo Nexus building on the Sonoma Mountain Village campus near Sonoma State University.
While fields all around are yellow with wild mustard, the colors on this farm range from red to blue and the spectrum in between. While outdoor growers have experienced historic drought, this place burbles with water. And while local producers have battled frost all winter long, this farmstead keeps at an even temperature.
That’s because the indoor agriculture of growUp Farms doesn’t need sunlight or rain or even soil to produce its food. It just needs water, LED lights, and walls. Oh, and electricity.
Practicing a new method known as vertical hydroponic farming, growUp Farms is a one-year-old startup company devoted to solving the world’s food problems in an entirely transparent manner using little more than running water, special lighting, plenty of geometry, and a modest application of new technology.
CEO and founder Ryan Calbreath, 32, decided to create growUp Farms even before he entered Dominican University’s prestigious Green MBA program three years ago. A restless worker with an undergraduate degree in business who felt stuck in his job, Calbreath read Dr. Dickson Despommier’s 2011 book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century and suddenly his life made sense.
“As soon as I finished reading the book, I started working on a business plan,” Calbreath says. “I remember on the first day of grad school, in the first class, we had to go around and say why we were there and what we wanted to do with that degree. I said I want to be a CEO of a vertical farm in California. “And,” he says gravely, “now I am.”
A professor emeritus at Columbia University medical school, Despommier’s vertical farming concept sprung from coursework assigned to his Medical Ecology classes. Seeing humans as co-existing with—not living apart from—other animals on the Earth, Despommier’s philosophy is straightforward: “It’s not enough to eat organic veggies and a freshly-caught brook trout if the rest of the planet is still entrenched in using poorly-designed systems that despoil nature and run high human health risks,” he writes.
“As far as I know, this is our only world, and we only get one shot at using it right. Vertical farming offers a way to integrate many of our most harmful systems—e.g. factory farming, municipal waste management, etc.—in a way that actually produces a positive effect on the health of us and our planet.”
Calbreath calls this “responsible growing,” and its ethos is the basis for the startup. “We’re going for a ‘beyond organic’ kind of thing,” he says, “not just being organic but also taking into consideration the social and environmental issues.”
To that end, he has designed a labeling system that not only notes the calories inherent in his produce, it also shows the location of the farm; the amount of water used to grow it; the planting, harvest, and delivery dates; kilowatts used; and the exact name and quantity of any nutrients added.
The kind of guy who can’t bear to spend $100 on dinner when there are so many starving people in the world, Calbreath worries that healthy and safe food is neither affordable nor available to those who need it most. “Our long-term goal,” he says, “is to go into third world countries and serve people on the bottom of the planet.”
As far as I know, this is our only world, and we only get one shot at using it right. Ryan Calbreath
But his overarching aim is to create a method of food production that can be done indoors for very little money and with no pesticides, will produce an astounding yield, and can serve urban consumers who live in few city blocks away from the farm. All that’s needed is a cheap lease on a warehouse space, running water and electricity, a modicum of tubing, and a farm can be in business. “Nowadays a lot of our food sits on a truck for three weeks before we eat it,” he says. “I’d rather eat food that was picked just days ago.”
growUp Farms is not the only vertical hydroponic effort around. The Plant in Chicago not only uses hydroponics to grow food, but aquaponics to grow fish; their waste-water is filtered to nourish the produce. Mushrooms are also on their slate. Plantagon in Sweden is another. That vertical farm utilizes a system of rotating cultivation boxes that move from floor to ceiling during the day for maximum natural light exposure. But growUp may be the first to have a turnkey plan that anyone can utilize easily and relatively cheaply to start indoor farming in their own neighborhood.
As the name implies, vertical farming goes up, not across. growUp’s system is based on a hexagonal construct using PCB towers that snake towards the ceiling with strategically cut holes into which plants can be placed and from which they can be easily moved.
Working with his brother Thomas Miller, who is the team’s hydroponics expert, Calbreath has had good luck with all of those late-summer crops. The two are still experimenting with tubers and root vegetables; strawberries have proven to be typically finicky. But Miller recently made an apricot tree come into bloom with just water and the brothers are optimistic that they’ll get better at coaxing nature into conforming with the somewhat unnatural as time goes along.
Because they are growing plants that require pollination, Calbreath intends to hire an apiarist to bring a hive into the warehouse and let the 3,000 or so insects inside have free range. “The bees ideally would only be released when nobody’s really around,” he says somewhat nonchalantly.
Calbreath estimates that the yield from a single flat acre of tomatoes planted traditionally might contain 4,500 plants that could produce 35,000 pounds of food. An “acre” of wall space using growUp’s 10-foot-tall towers similarly planted could accommodate 22,500 plants and produce 180,000 pounds of tomatoes. And, that doesn’t take water into account. growUp currently uses a single 55-gallon drum of water each week for one tower loaded with about 60 plants—the liquid equivalent of a moseying adult taking five morning showers. Organic nutrients are added at strategic stages to boost flavor and growth.
But what really sets growUp apart from other hydroponic growers is the company’s use of LED lighting instead of and sometimes in addition to fluorescents. “The LEDs are the most efficient energy-wise, but people are still arguing whether or not they can grow plants efficiently,” Calbreath says. “Part of our work has been to test LED lights. We’re finding that they grow plants phenomenally.”
I'd rather eat food that was picked just days ago. Ryan Calbreath
Of course, one can’t discuss hydroponic growing in Northern California without touching upon cannabis. “Ninety percent of the time, when someone asks us what we do and we say we grow fruits and vegetables hydroponically, they say, ‘Oh, you’re in pot,’” Calbreath says with a comic groan. “So yes, it’s a stigma, but it’s changing.”
Miller was diffidently employed before coming to work with his brother and knew nothing about hydroponics or plants before starting. His skill has come from hands-on experimenting, reading plenty of books, and, Calbreath acknowledges, “watching YouTube videos of weed farmers. Those guys are super knowledgeable,” he laughs. “Really, they’re some of the smartest, most knowledgeable guys in the hydroponics field.”
Miller has learned well. “I now refer to him as our ‘hydroponics expert,’” Calbreath says, “because honestly, I challenge anybody in the field to ask him a question about hydroponics that he doesn’t know. He’s really developed a passion for it.”
Calbreath’s plan to place growUp Farms in urban areas throughout the U.S. is a sophisticated and ambitious goal, and he admits that investors mostly want to know about obtaining a mini-version of his system that they can use at home. That’s not going to happen.
“I see it as another consumer product that’s going be purchased, used a couple of times, and then end up in the garage,” Calbreath says firmly. “I’m all for people growing their own food, but we’re looking at the bigger picture, honestly, and retail models like that are not going to solve the problems that we’re interested in solving.”