To Introduce Youth and Locals to Sustainable, Locally Produced Food, Entrepreneur Grows Upward
October 1, 2012 | Missy Smith
The words are right there on Alegria Fresh’s homepage: “Food is thy medicine; medicine is thy food.” This quote from Hippocrates could easily serve as part of the hydroponic vertical farm’s mission statement.
With a background in biochemistry and oncology, Erik Cutter—managing director of the Laguna Beach startup—decided during pre-med school that pharmaceutical drugs are not the answer to our nation’s health problems. “When I graduated with a degree, I did not believe in pharmaceuticals as a means of preventative health,” explains Cutter. “For me, it’s always been about preventative medicine and how food could do that. I don’t believe people have the information they need. I think we spent the last 50 years being disconnected from where food comes from. So, I decided to utilize the knowledge I have gained to help people obtain the truth about healthy foods and understand how important it is to know where your food comes from.”
Cutter ultimately hopes to inspire people to consume more local and naturally grown foods. With his new venture, Alegria Fresh, which he started in June 2012 with a $100,000 personal investment, Cutter and his team are growing hydroponic vegetables and salad greens for local residents and private chefs.
To grow their fresh produce and salad greens, Alegria Fresh uses Verti-Gro, a patented hydroponic vertical farming system. The outdoor Verti-Gro system that Alegria implemented consists of rows of vertically stacked pots. The system’s verticality allows for Alegria to increase plant density and production in a very small amount of space.
Alegria’s farm houses 150 rows of vertically stacked pot, each reaching seven feet, and is capable of producing more than 8,000 plants within 1,200 square feet, using coconut fiber and an automatic watering system attached to each pot. Like other hydroponic setups, the Verti-Gro system allows Alegria Fresh to increase the farm’s sustainability by conserving resources (they use about 90 percent less water, 50 percent less fertilizers and 70 percent less land) and not using any pesticides.
“The hydroponics system is far easier than making traditional soil and having the maintenance issues and pests that are associated with organic farming,” explains Cutter. “This vertical farming idea makes for a very simple tool that anybody can use.” He says it also helps cut back on waste. “Waste is a tax and we don’t waste anything,” he asserts.
Alegria Fresh grows a variety of salad greens and produce that include romaine, arugula, Brussels sprout greens, blue kale, cilantro, Echinacea, bok choy, collard greens, mint, Tomatoes, zucchini, squash, chile peppers, among others. And, to stay true to the word ‘fresh’ in their company name, Cutter says that none of the produce or greens they deliver to their customers is more than three hours old. On a typical day, the Alegria Fresh crew picks produce at 4 p.m., packs it up by 5 p.m. and gets it in the hands of their customers no later than 7 p.m. To meet this quick deadline, Cutter has employed a driven, passionate staff that ensures this timely turnaround.
While Cutter says he has come across very few obstacles in his vertical hydroponics startup, he has discovered that there is a lack of experienced farmers who understand how to grow food. But, this is one area in which Cutter is working to help Alegria Fresh progress. “I am training farmers as fast as I possibly can,” he says.