Wyoming Hydroponic Tower Co. Seeks to Facilitate Sustainable Food Production and Make Farming Less Expensive
February 6, 2012 | Matt Wilhalme
Nate Storey and business partner Paul Bennick want to make farming more efficient, sustainable and affordable for the private and commercial greenhouse grower. To do so, the partners founded Bright AgroTech, LLC, a mission driven company that develops modular hydroponic production towers to not only increase production in hydroponic and aquaponic systems, but also facilitate sustainable food production.
“We got into it to make farming less expensive,” Storey says.
The product that Storey, a PhD candidate in agronomy at the University of Wyoming, along with Bennick, a Wyoming Army National Guardsmen who served two tours in Iraq and grew up on a ranch, developed to reduce costs is called the ZipGrow Tower™. The towers, which range in price from $49.95 for a 3′ hanging tower to $119.95 for a 5′ bracketed tower, are designed to enable hobbyists and conveyor style commercial plant production operations to both take advantage of unused vertical space and reduce post-harvest production costs.
How it works
Currently awaiting patent approval, The ZipGrow Tower™ is composed of a PVC frame that acts as a housing for a matrix media made up of a recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) blend that functions to hold the seeds and seedlings in place within the vertical system. Once the seeds or seedlings have been encased in the matrix media, the towers can then be hung and irrigated by a hydroponic or aquaponic system.
Storey says that it’s important to note that the towers work in both hydroponic and aquaponic systems, because typically production outcomes differ markedly when one tries to apply the same equipment without modifications to both system types.
It can be like “trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” Storey says. “We redesigned it so we could take this equipment and have it robust enough to handle a hydroponic system.”
The ZipGrow Towers also provide a high amount of percolation and can serve as a habitat for red worms. These worms can in turn break down the fish waste in the aquaponic systems. The resulting worm castings then become bioavailable nutrients for growing produce.
“[The ZipGrow Tower has] got much higher specific surface area which allows a lot more microbial activity,” Storey says.
Once the produce is ready to harvest, the ZipGrow Towers can be removed from the greenhouse, washed, hung in trucks and transported as is directly to market. The cost of harvesting the produce is then outsourced to the consumer who can pick exactly what he or she wants directly from the tower at market.
“It’s a cool experiential thing to pick your own stuff,” Storey says.
According to Storey, Bright AgroTech’s vertical design functions to maximize the efficiency of greenhouse heating and cooling systems, thereby reducing energy costs. The matrix media inserts that go into the towers are also recyclable. Customers can return them to Bright AgroTech for a discount toward future purchases. The company then recycles or reuses the matrix media for water treatment or habitat restoration purposes.
“We want people to return inserts so that they can be recycled instead of being thrown away,” Storey says. “It’s important enough to us that we’ll take a hit to the margins to make it happen.”
One challenge that the company faces is convincing new customers to use its product. Storey believes that product adoption has been slow because people are simply too risk averse.
One adopter, though, who sees potential in the Bright Agrotech’s ZipGrow Towers, is Sylvia Bernstein, founder of The Aquaponic Source in Boulder, Colorado. She uses the ZipGrow Towers in her personal aquaponic garden and also sells the company’s products in her store.
“I don’t want to fill my grow beds with lettuce, but I go through a lot,” Bernstein says. “[The Zip Grow Tower] makes it easy to plant and harvest and it’s a super-efficient use of space. I hung them right over my fish tank and I actually started seeds in the towers.”
Ideally, Bright AgroTech would like to operate as an equipment manufacturer, but Storey says it’s just not possible at this point because product sales have not yet reached levels necessary to sustain this type of business model.
For the time being, Storey and Bennick plan to use ZipGrow Towers in their own commercial production endeavors in order to generate capital, further refine their system, and continue to demonstrate and prove the value of their product in order to obtain new customers.
Storey believes that in the future, “No matter what, unless you’re producing a commodity crop like wheat or soybeans you will have to do some sort of greenhouse.” That is why the company will continue to focus on developing equipment that optimizes greenhouse growing.