SoCal Sustainable Agriculture Entrepreneurs Discuss Business Models, Challenges & Opportunities
March 9, 2012 | Jessica Vernabe
The world’s population is growing rapidly, and that calls for new ways of thinking about how to produce enough food while also conserving the earth’s natural resources. As a result, agricultural entrepreneurs today are striving to combine the best of traditional farming methods with new technologies in order to create food that is healthy, flavorful and locally grown.
And if that doesn’t sound like enough of a feat, there’s also the challenge of doing it all using a business model that won’t leave the farmer broke.
Southern California has become a region of growing activity for these types of ventures, and Seedstock has attempted to provide a glimpse of what that experience looks like. A panel of agricultural entrepreneurs from the region—including those using soil, hydroponic and aquaponic growing methods—gathered at UCLA on Wednesday to share their experiences.
The entrepreneurs answered questions by the audience and by the event’s moderator, Seedstock founder Jason Reed, providing insight into the burning questions any modern-day starting farmer would want to know: How do entrepreneurs get started in such forward-thinking farming ventures, especially when they don’t come from a farming background? How do they get around barriers like raising enough capital and dealing with zoning issues?
The event panelists included Pierre Sleiman, David Rosenstein, Colin Archipley, Jesse DuBois and Dan Allen.
Sleiman is co-founder and CEO of Encinitas-based Go Green Agriculture, which has a goal of setting up hydroponic (meaning without soil) mini-farms all over the country that are controlled by computerized technology run by the company. Rosenstein is founder of EVO Farm, an organization that runs the only commercial aquaponic farm in Los Angeles. (Aquaponics is the fusion of hydroponics with aquaculture, which includes the raising of fish.) Archipley is co-founder and CEO of San Diego-based hydroponic organic farm Archi’s Acres and the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program, offering combat veterans opportunities in sustainable farming. DuBois and Allen are the CEO and CFO, respectively, of Farmscape Gardens, an organic garden installation and maintenance company based in Los Feliz (in Los Angeles) that aims to help people grow their own food in soil right in the city.
Breaking Into Sustainable Agriculture
These entrepreneurs aren’t representative of the typical farmer. For the most part, they come from backgrounds in other fields that aren’t related to agriculture. Sleiman studied computer science and business in college before starting Go Green Agriculture, and Rosenstein was a fully employed documentary filmmaker prior to pursuing a full-time career as an aquaponic farmer. (He did work on films about socially and environmentally conscious topics.) Archipley was a Marine sergeant. DuBois wanted to be a screenwriter, and Allen had a political science background.
These entrepreneurs were drawn to agriculture after developing both an understanding of the importance of having healthy, local food and a desire to solve problems plaguing today’s food system. Rosenstein said he got his inspiration from the documentary films he worked on where he found a common thread to the stories he was helping to tell.
“The common thread is that food can help solve all the world’s problems simultaneously,” he said, listing climate change and chronic diseases as some of those problems. “For me, I just wanted to step away from the camera and be one of those people.”
The five farmers gave some key advice for getting a sustainable farm started. Those included starting small; choosing a crop and growing technique that matches with the entrepreneur’s philosophy; coming up with a business model that solves a problem in a new way; and making sure the plan is economically feasible.
Archipley said he has seen his share of young people who are enthusiastic and want to “save the world” through sustainable agriculture. But sometimes that isn’t enough, he noted.
“If you want to be around for a long time, you have to make a profit,” Archipley said. “You’ve got to crunch the numbers. You have to figure out where you’re going to sell your crop. You have to figure out what crop it is. … You have to make those decisions before you actually make that investment.”
One way to give an agriculture startup some competitive edge is through directed crop selection. New farmers should try to find out what kinds of products the local community is demanding, the panelist said. They could also find a niche market to explore, which helps the farmer avoid the gruesome price competition of the subsidized crop markets.
“It turns out Los Angeles is a melting pot of mini-culture. Most of us can’t find the produce that comes from home,” Rosenstein said. “So (there’s) tapping into special markets—cash crops besides the cash crop.”
DuBois said Farmscape allows clients to choose from a wide variety of seed options, and they balance their crop options so they include both the highly specialized “crazy” crops and the more conventional ones.
Soil vs. Hyroponics vs. Aquaponics
While the panelists are all making strides in sustainable agriculture and their goals are similar, there is an obvious difference between them—how they grow their food. They all had their different reasons for why they chose the methods they did.
Sleiman said he chose hydroponics—particularly with the model in which the growing metrics of the mini-farms are controlled by the company’s central office—because it is a simple model that can be spread more easily than aquaponics. (The plant products are grown in water and nutrients are directly delivered to the roots, bypassing the use of soil.) The growth process can be easily monitored by the company’s software system, cutting out the need for a highly skilled employee to handle the metrics.
Other benefits include the use of 60 percent to 80 percent less water than traditional growing methods and higher productivity levels, Sleiman said. He noted that his method also eliminates the need for pesticides. Archipley also grows his food hydroponically, adapting certified organic techniques to the hydroponics model. He said he also found the method to be much more water efficient.
Meanwhile, Rosenstein said aquaponics allows for the elimination of runoff (unlike growing in soil), and it is a “closed-loop” system that replicates a natural process. (The fish waste in the aquaculture part of the process is used as nutrients for the plants, which are grown hydroponically. The plants, in turn, act as a filter the water, which is re-circulated back to the fish.) On the other hand, when using hydroponics, the farmer has to buy the fertilizers and nutrients that feed the plant instead of producing them naturally within the system, he said.
Rosenstein noted that there is no substitute for the richness and quality of food grown in good soil, but the reality of growing in urban settings necessitates the use of other methods.
“The deficiency of the model of growing through the soil is that you can’t get to a scale in an urban environment,” he said. “That’s where aquaponics and hydroponics come in because of the cycles and the density you can get.”
Meanwhile, DuBois and Allen focus their work with Farmscape Gardens on helping people grow their own gardens intensively on small spaces right in the midst of metropolitan areas.
The panelists also gave advice about how to work with investors (develop a clear pitch on how you plan to grow the company; also look to friends and family for early investment). They talked about how to deal with zoning issues, and about spreading enthusiasm about careers in agriculture (reaching out to students in schools and providing paid internships).
Seedstock’s partners in the event included the Entrepreneur Association and the Harold and Pauline Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. The event was also sponsored by Whole Foods Market, Westwood Village.