Innovative Greenhouse Design Startup Leverages Wind and Air to Power Sustainable Farmers
November 28, 2011 | Jessica Vernabe
David Chelf’s love for growing healthy and flavorful food dates back to his adolescence.
It was that love combined with a physics background that led the founder of Airstream Innovations, Inc. to create the wind-assisted, air-supported greenhouse, and invention he says helps farmers grow more sustainably. Chelf, the company’s president, originally invented the product in late 2005 for his own crops.
(Chelf is also the owner of Wicked Wilds, a company he founded in 2003 that focuses on growing organic fruit and vegetable varieties with the maximum level of flavor.)
The Airstream Innovations greenhouse model, which is made with a reinforced plastic, relies on controllable air pressure and ventilation.
“The greenhouse has a very controllable airflow that’s economically produced,” Chelf said. “The airflow is generated by fans, but it’s assisted by the wind, which means that when there is wind, the wind is contributing potentially a fair amount of the energy to supporting and ventilating the greenhouse.”
Chelf noted that the airflow model offers several benefits, including energy conservation; richer and healthier products from optimal ventilation, that results in higher photosynthesis and mineralization levels; and better protection against insects.
Chelf is just at the start of fully bringing his product to market. He started selling the greenhouses in the third and fourth quarter of this year, and he expects to really get things rolling in 2012, he said. Chelf notes that he expects to have about seven acres of greenhouse under production by the end of 2012 and then double that acreage each year for five years. He expects Airstream Innovations to generate about $3.25 million this year and about twice that amount in 2012.
Airstream Innovations’ greenhouses sell for about $100,000 an acre, which Chelf says is about half the price of other fan-ventilated greenhouses, but pricier than the less expensive greenhouses that consist of metal frames with plastic over them.
Chelf said he currently holds a patent for his greenhouse design in Japan, with patents pending in the United States, Australia, Canada, Mexico and the European Union. Meanwhile, he plans to launch a Wicked Wilds retail line called Organic Ovation, for which he will open sites throughout Southern California, and then throughout the country. Through the plan, Chelf will choose operators to run the sites while he still maintains control by using technology to monitor things like irrigation and organic fertilizer injections, he said. The idea is to disperse operations so they can serve communities locally, he said.
The Food Calling
Chelf’s interest in growing quality food started when he was a high school freshman in Tampa, Fla. He joined his school’s wrestling team and needed to lose weight. That’s when he decided to start his own garden, growing his own produce and improving his diet, he said. The result: he lost about 50 pounds.
Chelf—realizing that it mattered how, when and where food was grown—took up an interest in nutrition. He started learning about carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals and adding manure compost to his garden soil.
“I enjoyed eating the great flavor of these varieties and growing as well as I could at the time,” he said. “I also kind of got hooked on the spiritual quality of taking a small seed and watching it grow up to something big and productive.”
Chelf went on to the University of California, Berkeley to study physics. He said that by the time he reached graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he continued his study of physics, he missed gardening and found a house with a backyard where he could set up an organic garden. Chelf next pursued a doctorate in physics with the hope of becoming a professor active in research. However, before doing his dissertation, he decided to change course toward his passion for agriculture, he said.
“I started thinking about controlled environments and greenhouses and how ultimately I could benefit situations like the drought and eventual possible plagues in Ethiopia—how I could benefit those environments to help them produce food stably and sustainably,” Chelf said, noting that he left his program.
In 1991, Chelf started a hydroponic lettuce business called Aquarian Farms in Lucerne Valley in the upper Mojave Desert where he grew a European salad green called mache. Chelf eventually connected with large growers in the Salinas area and helped them grow mache in the fields, he said.
In 2003, Chelf founded Wicked Wilds in Ranchita, Calif.—a small town in the high desert above Borrego Springs in San Diego County—where he grew “mara des bois” strawberries, a French variety. Chelf said he invented his wind-assisted, air-supported greenhouses in December 2005 and used the prototype on his strawberries in early 2006. That year, Chelf more than doubled the amount of strawberries, and within three years, he had a stronger root system, he said.
In 2006 to 2007, Chelf worked on developing his greenhouse model and using it on his own crops, he said. Then for the next few years, he set up beta sites on other growers’ properties, testing the product for glitches and user-friendliness. That research has led to Chelf developing a new and improved greenhouse model at his current production site in Oceanside.
“Now that I’ve done that, I’ve got a product that I’m really confident is ready to go market large-scale,” he said.
One customer, James Russell, vice president and general manager of Armstrong Growers, said his company has been testing out Airstream Innovation’s greenhouse at its operation in San Juan Capistrano for about three years. He calls the product “interesting, innovative and very different in our industry.” He said the company’s organic vegetables and herbs have benefited from what he likes to call “the bubble house.”
“When you open a door and the air is constantly blowing out because it’s a positive flow (outward), insects can’t come into the greenhouse, so it helps us cut down on any insect population … and thus cuts back on chemicals,” Russell said.
He noted that having the fans blow air across the crops also makes a major difference.
“It tends to keep the plants drier and thus less fungus and things build up across the top of the plants, so we’ve seen a great benefit,” he said.
Russell said Armstrong Growers, a division of Armstrong Garden Centers, is about to receive an upgraded version of the greenhouse, which is expected to cut down on the number of fans used and to be more stable in bad weather conditions. He said that if everything goes well with the new model, the company could end up increasing its use of the product.
Chelf said he hopes his greenhouses will also be used for other purposes beside agricultural production. He is currently working on a few patent applications that will be in the area of energy production, he said. He also sees the structure being used for emergency temporary housing since they can be set up rapidly.
“In that case, you don’t need a covering that lets 80 percent or 90 percent of the light in,” Chelf said. “You can use materials that are more insulating, that are less heat-loading. You can set up a structure that at least protects you from the majority of elements. And, by the way, it’s earthquake-proof because it’s so light.”
Chelf said that for every 10 pounds of produce that is sold through his Organic Ovation retail line, Airstream Innovations will donate a dollar of greenhouses to an area or a people in need, whether that’s for the Navajo people in the Southwestern United States or for countries like Zambia in Africa.