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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Seattle Sustainable Urban Farming Startup Keeps it ‘Hyperlocal’, Growing Food on Rooftops

July 30, 2012 |

Photo: Foster School of Business, University of Washington

Chris Bajuk got into urban farming almost by chance. Though not from a farming background, he has been gardening in backyards since childhood. And, in recent years he has been experimenting with hydroponic systems. “A good friend of mine, and classmate from the University of Washington MBA program, came over to my house and was awestruck by how much produce I was growing on my backyard deck using hydroponics,” says Bajuk, who was growing peas, beans, tomatillos, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, watermelon and corn in buckets. “He suggested we start an urban farming business,” he reflects. “Thus, UrbanHarvest was born.”

That good friend was Chris Sheppard. The two MBAs partnered to create their self-proclaimed “hyperlocal urban farming company,” which will grow sustainable produce on rooftops of urban buildings in the Seattle, Wash., area. “The concept is to use that real estate resource which is most underutilized: urban rooftops,” says Bajuk. “It will pay the owners of buildings rent on long-term leases for the rooftop space, upon which we will build controlled environment greenhouses.”

Earlier this year, Bajuk and Sheppard presented their sustainable rooftop farming business plan in the 2012 University of Washington Foster School of Business’ Business Plan Competition. Competing against 101 other teams, UrbanHarvest won the $25,000 grand prize and $2,000 for the Best Clean-Tech Idea to jumpstart its business.

UrbanHarvest is currently teaming up with investors and building owners, and Bajuk only sees a bright future for the company. “UrbanHarvest shouldn’t have too many challenges in building our business in the greater Seattle area, because we have a large network of contacts and interested parties,” he says. “In speaking with people, it’s fun to watch their reactions. When mentioning rooftop urban farming, many people react initially with skepticism. But after explaining the concept in more depth, the light bulb turns on and that “Ah-ha” expression comes across their face. They then react with intense interest and enthusiasm. Many of them want to invest.”

Sustainability is at the core of what UrbanHarvest represents, says Bajuk, and many people are drawn to their sensible business model. By utilizing a hydroponic setup, the company will use a fraction of the nutrients, water and land area typically utilized in traditional agriculture, and will produce a similar amount of fruits and vegetables. “Simply put, this is the most environmentally sustainable method of agricultural production,” Bajuk asserts. “And, by farming in direct proximity to our customers, we drastically reduce—and in some cases, eliminate—food miles traveled.” Though UrbanHarvest will use a good amount of electricity for grow lights and pumps, it will have access to the Northwest’s inexpensive hydropower.

Among the businesses and institutions UrbanHarvest is in ongoing discussions with are Microsoft and the University of Washington. “We do not have signed deals in place yet,” he says. “But hopefully those will come soon.” A partnership with Microsoft would mean that the corporation would no longer have to receive its produce from a supplier in California, which is 12-hour drive away from its headquarters. Instead, the computer software company would source its food directly from its rooftop.

Though Bajuk does not foresee many hurdles arising for UrbanHarvest—mostly because of the strong interest brewing in their community—he says that one challenge will be to expand their reach outside of the Seattle area, at which time they will have to consider each municipality’s land use and zoning regulations. But, for now, Bajuk says the UrbanHarvest team will stick to Seattle while it nurtures its new endeavor. “From an operational perspective, it definitely makes sense to concentrate on building a brand and putting systems in place to service the local geography before expanding to other geographies, lest we get out over our skis,” he explains.

For Bajuk, UrbanHarvest is not only a chance to make a difference in his local community, but to also run a successful, sustainable enterprise. “While I love that this is a green business, I’m not completely altruistic,” he says. “I’m in this business to earn a living, and then some. But the profit incentive is only part of the story. I hope to not only provide for myself, but for a multitude of future employees. And the municipalities in which we will operate will benefit too. Food dollars will be kept local. Our employees will spend local. There’s an economic multiplier effect that takes place with local agriculture.”

And, Bajuk only sees a bright future for UrbanHarvest, since urban agriculture is only gaining popularity and the need for sustainable farming is increasing. “It’s the right business at the right time. People want to connect with and understand how their food is grown; they want to have a say in how food systems operate and what kind of produce is available for our consumption; and they care about Good Agricultural Practices and providing farmers with livable wages,” he explains. “And, to be able to do so in a way that’s beneficial for the environment and produces a profit for investors is the best of all worlds. UrbanHarvest truly is a triple bottom line business.”

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