Startup Profile: Greenhouses in the Sky, Oh My
August 26, 2011 | Melinda Clark
Creating something out of nothing. Isn’t that the magic of farming? Taking things that don’t seem to mean much by themselves – dirt and seeds and water – and creating sustenance. Lately, skyfarmers like those at Sky Vegetables are trying to do that with even less. They’re taking the soil and even some of the water out of the equation, and substituting in an underused resource – roofs. In doing so, they hope to create value, jobs and local produce where before there was nothing.
Something out of Nothing
Like a field full of crops, Needham, Massachusetts-based Sky Vegetables grew from a small seed of an idea. Founder Keith Agoada, in need of school credits at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote a paper about putting farms on rooftops to create a new generation of urban agriculture. That idea – constructing and operating commercial, soilless hydroponic greenhouses on the rooftops of supermarkets in the United States – turned into Sky Vegetables and won him first place in the G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition in 2008. Agoada used the money to launch the company and then held a summit on urban agriculture. That’s when Robert Fireman, an entrepreneurial attorney and the president of Sky Vegetables, first got involved.
Fireman was introduced to Agoada by a friend, and decided to attend the summit. What followed from there is best related in Fireman’s own words:
“We went to the summit. We saw some people that were inspiring. We talked to some of the people that were there like Michael Christian, president of American Hydroponics, and Will Allen, Chair of Growing Power…We formed an advisory board. We formed Sky Vegetables. We did a first round of funding with friends and family. We sought to find the business within the concept.”
Perhaps one of the most intriguing things about Sky Vegetables is the potential to get so much out of very little input; Sky Vegetables seeks to take an often-unused space and create a flourishing garden – in Fireman’s words, “turning dead roofs into green productive centers.”
They’ll do this through a combination of hydroponics and aquaponics. Rainwater storage tanks will provide all the water required to maintain the hydroponic growing system, which will run on five to 10 percent of the amount of water required in conventional agriculture. The rainwater tanks will also contain aquaponic systems that will turn fish waste into nutrient solution for the plants in the greenhouse. The company is also exploring alternative energy sources such as solar and wind to help power the greenhouse system as well as experimenting with vermicomposting to turn expired supermarket produce and unused plant material into growing medium.
To keep on the cutting edge of all of these technologies, Sky Vegetables has built up a team of experts in urban gardening, hydroponics, aquaculture, green building design and construction. Besides Christian and Allen, their advisory board includes Kevin Fitzsimmons, director of the University of Arizona’s Environmental Resources Department and Jonathan Todd, president and CEO of John Todd Ecological Design, an organization specializing in wastewater treatment systems. And, as Fireman points out, Sky Vegetables’ Director of Farming, Joe Swartz, has 25 years of experience in the hydroponics industry.
Sky Vegetables has received positive receptions from the cities that is has talked to, many of which have chosen to waive zoning laws for the company. And it’s easy to see why. Sky Vegetables wants to produce fresh, local food – and jobs cultivating it – in their community, while at the same time improving air quality and potentially even the nutrition of community members.
As for the roof owners, in addition to creating a new source of income, the greenhouses will also improve the roof’s efficiency and longevity. According to Fireman, the greenhouses will help reduce utility costs by providing insulation in the winter and absorbing sunlight in the summer, and solve the problem of storm water runoff by capturing the rain and recycling it as fuel for the plants. Having a skyfarm is also a benefit for businesses interested in corporate social responsibility or LEED certification.
Might this be one of those rare cases where everybody wins?
We should know soon. At this point, Sky Vegetables is still in the development stages, researching the optimum crops and growing techniques, developing their marketing plan and making a final push for financial support. Fireman says they had hoped to obtain public funding, but that the USDA, while very supportive, couldn’t give them any money (because they’re not rural agriculture).
But Sky Vegetables plans to have their first large-scale farm – 66,000 square feet of greenhouses on the roof of a former shoe factory in Brockton, Mass. – up and running by the end of this year or early next year. Fireman says the farm will produce about 800,000 pounds of chemical-free food annually.
Sky Vegetables is also eyeing roofs in Boston, Washington D.C. and parts of California. Fireman says they’ve also talked to supermarkets like Whole Foods about urban agriculture and what types of products they need, and are considering starting CSAs in the businesses housed under their rooftop farms. They’ve also talked with schools about possible school gardens and interactive curriculums.
Fireman is very optimistic about the staying power of urban agriculture. “I think it’s going to be the future. I think people are going to get back to growing food where they live. And this sort of technology makes it available…I think urban ag and commercial hydroponics is going to be huge. Our goal is to build 50 of these in the next seven years.”
Though that may seem ambitious, Fireman says with a laugh, “Walmart builds a new superstore every week.”
Maybe the next one will have a farm on top.