Startup Profile: Home Town Organic Farm Goes Vertical in the City
July 7, 2011 | Robert S. Altman
Dan Gibbs, CEO of San Diego, CA-based vertical organic farming startup Home Town Farms, doesn’t believe he’s introducing a new company, but an entire industry that will benefit consumers, the environment and the future of sustainable agriculture.
“Urban farming isn’t new, vertical farming isn’t new, but vertical urban farming is new,” said Gibbs.
To grow the vertical urban farming industry, Home Town Farms plans to build one-half to three-acre greenhouses on the rooftops, abandoned lots, and corners of urban areas in densely populated U.S. cities. Using proprietary vertical farming techniques, each site will produce organic vegetables, berries, lettuces and herbs to be sold to local consumers on site and wholesale to local farmers markets, restaurants and grocery stores. The company will also license its system to 3rd parties.
Prior to developing his vertical farming concept, Gibbs focused his agricultural efforts on exploring opportunities in the growing organic produce marketplace. He partnered with agricultural expert Michael Castro (now the Chief Operating Officer at Home Town Farms) and the two began developing models for large-scale organic farms. “It wasn’t long before we realized that by the time we grow it, box it and get it into the city, we’d have to spend millions of dollars just telling people our product is healthier,” Gibbs said. It was weeks later, when Castro recalled work he’d done nearly 20 years earlier implementing high-efficiency growing systems in greenhouses in Mexico and Spain, that they decided to bring the farm to the city.
How It Works
Home Town Farms’ vertical growing system is hydro-organic, meaning that it combines vertical hydroponic growing methods with organic media. “We believe in living soil,” said Gibbs. Within the system plant roots grow around organic materials – such as compost and cocoa fiber – that facilitate the production of nutrients and enzymes necessary for plant growth. Gibbs stopped short of providing too much detail about how the system works in order to preserve his company’s competitive advantage.
He did tell us, though, that Home Town Farms’ vertical organic growing systems will yield six to eight times more produce per square foot than conventional farms and require 70 percent less land, 85 percent less water and 80 percent less fertilizer to grow the same volume of produce.
The following images show the type of vertical growing system that Home Town Farms will employ:
A Paradigm Shift in Farming
For farmers, bigger has always meant better – more land means more crops. Conversely, for the Home Town Farms model to work, a greenhouse need only be large enough to supply its immediate consumer base. “Once you get to about three acres you’re producing so much food you have to begin transporting it too far,” said Gibbs.
In a densely populated area, one greenhouse would be able provide produce to all of the consumers and businesses within a 15-mile radius. Gibbs said that he wouldn’t be surprised to see vegetable, berry, lettuce and herb production migrate completely into urban areas. “People will see how economically viable and environmentally friendly they are to grow in the city, and traditional farms will have to shift primarily to tree, stalk and root crops that demand more space.”
The cost to construct a Home Town Farms vertical urban farming system ranges from $700,000 to $1,000,000 per acre. Gibbs said this initial investment would get a farm built, running and cash flow positive by the end of year one.
A Conventional Pricing Model
Home Town Farms plans on selling its produce at conventional non-organic prices – a novel idea for those who equate Whole Foods quality with ‘whole paycheck’. By eliminating the traditional costs to wash, pack, and ship produce, Home Town Farms believes it can offer organic foods at non-organic prices, said Gibbs. “And even though it’s expensive city land and expensive city labor, it still doesn’t outweigh the costs of the current distribution system,” he said.
After receiving endorsements from the City of San Diego and a list of local businesses interested in buying its produce, Home Town Farms’ only setback seems to be its timing. “In this economic environment people are nervous about investing in any new business, let alone a new industry,” Gibbs said.
Despite this hurdle, Gibbs has entered into a cooperative venture with the Encinitas School District and plans to erect a Home Town Farms systems on 5 acres of school property that will supply low cost organic produce for the school district’s food service program.
The company also recently entered into an agreement with Specialty Nutrition Group (SNG) for the master licensing rights to construct Home Town Farms vertical farming systems in the State of Florida.
Gibbs hopes the first Home Town Farms system will be up and running by 2012.
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