Built ‘From the Light Up’, Hydroponic Technology Startup Seeks to Revolutionize Urban Farming
March 1, 2012 | Melinda Clark
At first glance, Omega Garden’s product list might be a little confusing, with its Volksgarden® and Farmdominium™. But the Canadian-based hydroponics company isn’t selling bio-fuel vehicles or green housing complexes; rather, they’ve created a hydroponics system that may revolutionize not only urban agriculture, but agriculture in general. And 2012 is shaping up to be a big year for Omega Garden – so stay tuned.
The Volksgarden® is a rotary hydroponics system in which plants are installed in a circular unit, growing toward a light source at the center. It has approximately 20 square feet of growing area, and holds up to 80 plants. Its most successful crops include a variety of herbs, leafy lettuces, chards, peppers, strawberries, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers and some flower varieties.
The unit is in a constant slow rotation – so that the plants grow uniformly – with a complete rotation taking about 45 minutes. The plant’s root zone passes through a nutrient solution when it reaches the bottom of the rotation. As Edward (Ted) Marchildon, Omega Garden’s creator, puts it, “Instead of flat land with rotary harvesters we’ve got rotary land.”
According to the company’s website, the Volksgarden® can yield three to five times the comparable weight per watt average per harvest as conventional flat or tiered gardens, using only a fraction of the water and space.
The key to the gardens, says Marchildon, is the ideal ‘light source to plant’ relationship (the distance between the light source to the individual plant, and to the plants in the garden as a whole). In the Volksgarden®, the plants are in the ‘Goldilocks zone,’ meaning they’re close enough to the light source to get its full growth benefits, but not so close that the leaves will get singed.
Marchildon laments that in traditional greenhouse models, the artificial supplemental light is too far away from the plants to have a growth relationship. It merely keeps them awake, actually annoying rather than benefiting the plant. But unlike greenhouses, in which the focus is on the building, Omega Gardens are built “from the light up.”
Says Marchildon, “[In greenhouses], the plant is not in the Goldilocks Zone, one to two feet, for that plant. These things are like eight to 10 feet away.” He adds, “It’s about putting the elements in the right place. If you have water and fire, but they’re not in the right locations – if the fire is on top of the water, you never get to have tea.”
In addition to greatly reducing water usage, increasing plant yield and controlling potentially harmful environmental factors (pollution, contamination from GMOs, etc.), the Volksgarden® has something else going for it – its produce tastes better, says Marchildon, because the plants are under stress from the rotation, and therefore increase their flavonoid production.
While Omega Garden currently just sells the hydroponics units, Marchildon would like to start operating some as well, where consumers could pay for a garden in the system and then have its produce delivered to them – reaping the benefits without having to do the actual farming.
He likens the idea to “You Brew” shops, which would get around legal prohibitions against commercial alcohol production by doing everything for the consumer – except the one step that would legally make the consumer the brewer. “I trademarked recently ‘You Grew,’” says Marchildon. “We’ll do the same business model, except now it will be for your food.”
He’s working with a Michigan startup, Green Spirit Farms, that plans to use Volksgarden® units to grow organic produce in vacant industrial and commercial buildings near large urban markets. Marchildon says that the company already has a grocery chain lined up that wants to purchase everything the company can produce. Marchildon and Green Spirit are in talks about creating a kind-of philanthropic partnership – one idea is that he would take five percent of the profits and put it into a foundation that would create additional gardens – creating a positive feedback loop of sorts.
Marchildon envisions expanding this idea into a sort-of brood parasitism strategy in the future. Brood parasites are organisms that use host individuals to raise their young. The common example is birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds in the hope that they will rear their young. However, unlike brood parasitism, Marchildon’s strategy would benefit everyone – not only the direct participants, but those in need in the surrounding communities.
He explains that for a big order, he would require a certain percentage of the gardens to be dedicated to charity – for instance, disabled people in the community. “So I’ll put 50 gardens in their system – people would get a third of production, operators will get a third, and a third will go into the ‘You Grew’ foundation, whose sole duty is to self-replicate. And all of the money that comes back in just goes back into putting more eggs in these nests.”
With this “compounding of abundance,” threatens Marchildon, “my plan is nothing less than global domination.”
Since the company’s inception in 1998, Marchildon estimates that they’ve sold about 2,500 individual Omega Garden units. The current model, the Volksgarden®, is the sixth reincarnation of the technology. The company right now consists of Marchildon and his partner, Betty, and the companies they contract to do the manufacturing. “We’ve kept intentionally small because I was working on product development,” says Marchildon. “[We] wanted to make sure it’s bulletproof. We’re at that now.”
He explains that while at the beginning, most of Omega Garden’s market was hobby gardeners, they’ve had commercial interest for quite some time now. And it looks like 2012 will be a big year for Omega Garden. Marchildon says that after years of waiting, they’re finally about to receive a patent for the carousel module, which contains 36 Volksgarden® modules. And he recently filed a different patent for the Farmdominium™, a fully automated vertical farming system composed of carousels. It’s housed in a hermetically-sealed building, with the planting and other work being done by high speed robotic hands.
2012 may also be the year that the first Farmdominium™ is built. Marchildon says that a company in Oregon has been ‘threatening’ to order four Farmdominiums™ – at a price tag in the 300 million dollar range.
If that happens, it will take Omega Garden to the next level – Marchildon says he’ll need to get a dedicated facility and hire a number of employees. He says that he’s also been in talks with representatives from Six Nations (the only territory in North America that has the six Iroquois nations living together) about installing a Farmdominium™in their territory.
Marchildon says that part of his inspiration to create Omega Garden came from the famous quote by Buckminster Fuller, “The Things to do are: the things that need doing, that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done.” Marchildon points out that if you’re seeing what needs to be done, you must be looking around where you are – locally, in your community. Which isn’t a bad place to start.
Fun fact: In the Canadian-American military sci-fi TV series “Stargate Universe,” there were Omega Garden’s systems on the spaceship – the closing episode of season two shows a character eating produce from one of the gardens. Marchildon was hoping the third season would be when they would really showcase the gardens, but unfortunately, the series was not picked up for a third season.