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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Innovation and Business Savvy Define Alabama-based High Tech Farm’s First Year

July 30, 2012 |

Flat Rock, Ala (population: 4,000) recently became home to an innovative hydroponic-based farm that plans to spread their method of growing sustainable, local produce across the state, and possibly further.

Flat Rock Growing Company (FRGC) is the product of collaboration between former social worker Tommy Wood and Blake Peek. “Most people think having a psychology degree doesn’t really make sense for a farmer,” says Wood. “But after spending five years as a social worker I was able to see things from a community standpoint. I was able to see how things fit together and when the idea of a farm came up, I knew this was my chance to write some wrongs.”

Wood and Peek established FRGC on a “double bottom line.” First, they wanted to be able to grow their business and sustainably produce a superior product. Secondly, they want to fundamentally change the way their community interacts with food. “Getting some of the people here excited about sustainably grown food wasn’t easy,” says Wood. “But when we started explaining to people that 95% of all produce sold in Alabama was imported, we got people’s attention.”

That idea of local production has gotten people around the area excited about FRGC. “People want to support the farmer down the road more than the farmer across the country, or across the world,” says Wood.

Plus, they would say their product just tastes better. “As a country, we are still importing Asian vegetables from Asia,” says Wood. “You lose flavor the instant you harvest the crop, so those travel times really just don’t make sense. We realized that last winter when we grew Bok Choy. The asian community around Huntsville went absolutely nuts. We had grandmothers saying that our product tasted like their childhood memories of food in China. That was a great feeling.”

Learning by doing

A year ago, FRGC existed in a small room in the back of a house. The group experimented with five-foot aeroponic towers and several different crops. Today, they still have the towers — in fact, they are the first to use these commercially that they know of. But they also employ several other techniques in their new 3,000 square foot green house. Many of their technique choices have been made through trial and error.

“The aeroponic towers have been great for us,” says Wood, “but we won’t be using them again.” The issue is space. While Wood recommends the towers for anyone looking to start a garden in their home or apartment, they have proved less than ideal for FRGC. “We have six feet between our towers,” says Wood. “With a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) table, we could have about ten times as many crops as we do now. We didn’t realize that when we built, and we couldn’t have predicted the demand we saw almost instantly after we opened.”

Inside Flat Rock Grow Co.'s high tech greenhouse operation. Photo: Flat Rock Grow Co.

To meet that demand, Peek and Wood improvised, creating their own hybrid aeroponic/hydroponic system out of scrap parts left over from the construction of their greenhouse. “We were able to throw together a couple of extra water tanks and a leftover pump and create our own system for basically zero cost.” The system misted plant roots until they were able to grow into a pipe, at which point the team turned on the hydroponic flow.

As word spread of the budding company, they had a need for even more efficiency. “We knew we wanted a year-long crop in the towers, and we had picked strawberries,” says Wood. “But then a couple of restaurants in a larger nearby town became interested in our lettuce.”  At that point, Wood and Peak invested in pre-built NFT tables from American Hydroponics in California.

The last system they use today is a basic ebb and flow tray for propagation. Currently, they are seeding about 160 cubes and producing 35 pounds of lettuce a week.  “We’re small time,” jokes Wood. “But in the last year we’ve learned so much. Often by killing a huge number of plants.”

One year down, time to get started

Wood has spent a lot of time thinking about the future of his company and how to achieve the double bottom line they’ve established. “This year, this greenhouse, has been about proving the skeptics wrong,” says Wood. “People said that the residents of northeast Alabama wouldn’t care about having fresh, local food. Well, I beg to differ. Turns out even good old boys will get fired up about their food coming from other countries when we can grow it right here.”

Currently, FRGC has about 3,000 plant sites in one warehouse. They have a plan to construct a 20,000 plant site, an NFT hydroponic greenhouse that will focus strictly on lettuce in the very near future. After the growth and demand they’ve experienced this first year, they’re ready. “We had to start somewhere,” explains Wood. “Now we’ve been able to prove to ourselves and our banks that this is real.”

Right now, FRGC is running at operational profit. Peek and Wood have plans to increase margins with their new greenhouse. The math is simple, according to Wood. The company recycles all of their water and uses an evaporative cooling system. The fans, one of the largest expenses, run in the greenhouse if there are three plants, or 30,000.

“It’s all the same cost, minus the seed,” says Wood. “If we increase our plant sites per square foot, we’re able to be very profitable. And in our next greenhouse, we’ll be able to do that.”

The learning curve has been steep for FRGC, but they now stand as one of the only suppliers of local, year-round produce in their community. Now, they want to help share their experience with aspiring farmers. “Eventually, we want to franchise this idea, this system,” says Wood. “I’ve traveled all over the country learning about how to do this better, and at every single event there are people looking for a manual. They are looking for a step by step process to start growing local produce for their communities.”

Wood says a lot of that isn’t possible — growth conditions vary too much from place to place. But what is possible is a network of support for would-be hydroponic farmers. “We fully believe this is a way for people to support their families and change their lives,” says Wood. “A tractor can cost up to $250,000 — just one! For $200,000 you can create a supplemental income and change the way your neighborhood eats. You don’t have to be born into farming to make this work. We have proven that.”

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