Food Loving Techie Flees Manufacturing, Launches Sustainable Hydroponic Farm in Texas
November 14, 2012 | Missy Smith
What does a high-tech guy do when he becomes tired of the daily grind in the manufacturing industry? If he is a food lover, he opens a greenhouse to supply area restaurants with fine greens and revels in all-things food.
Darrell Joseph, a self-proclaimed foodie, did just that. After working more than 20 years in manufacturing, he thought he would try his hand at something else. “I am heavy into food and fine dining,” says Joseph. “I wanted to do something with food. I wanted to interact with chefs, as well as people who enjoy food and fine dining.”
So, in December of 2003, Joseph founded Bella Verdi Farms in Dripping Springs, Texas, to offer micro-greens, culinary herbs and specialty greens to what he calls white tablecloth restaurants, as well as caterers and retail grocers. In February of 2004, he began working on his company’s 13,000-square-foot greenhouse, which he completed in May. Later that month, he began selling his greens.
Although he did not have an agriculture background, Joseph—owner and founder of Bella Verdi Farms—brought the process and quality control experience he gained in his prior business life to his new hydroponic greenhouse. “I found that growing micro-greens in a controlled environment is a way to have consistent products every day of the year,” says Joseph, explaining that Texas’ hot and arid climate makes it difficult to grow greens traditionally.
Joseph’s hydroponic system is a hybrid, he says. “I had no prior experience,” he explains. “So, a lot of the stuff I have invented or refined to suit my needs. I’m a tinkerer and an inventor. The people around here call me the mad scientist,” he jokes. “I just tinker with things I have seen or heard of and try to figure them out. For the most part, [the operation] is made up of homemade systems.” Within the hydroponic systems Bella Verdi utilizes a nutrient film technique, a hydroponic technique in which a film of water containing nutrients necessary for plant growth is recirculated around the bare roots of plants. “The plants actually fit in a template, the system runs nutrients, the plants take what they need and then it’s re-circulated,” he says.
Joseph started his operation with micro-greens, because at the time, it was a higher margin product that wasn’t being produced locally. He says the Dripping Springs area was bringing micro-greens in from California and the quality just wasn’t there, due to the distance it had to travel. “As a food guy, I was eating really nice food from all over the world, and micro-greens were bursting onto the scene,” he explains. “I was looking for something I could do for my local chefs in Texas. It was really before the local food movement hit. I thought we could do it local and do it good or better. And, we get a lot better shelf life than people were used to with micro-greens back in the day.”
Joseph later incorporated herbs into his business to meet another market demand. And, in late 2007, when the economy rapidly went downhill, he decided to offered lettuces. “My thought as a business guy was, ‘what is the first thing to happen?’ People will stop eating at high-end white tablecloth restaurants, which is who were geared toward,’” he explains. “I decided to do something geared toward a broader audience.” So, he added basil, pea shoots, bibb lettuce and mixed lettuce to his repertoire.
Despite turning a profit with his business, Joseph says that high-energy costs pose one of the biggest challenges for Bella Verdi. As a result, he grows a small amount of his products indoors under LED lights, but he takes advantage of the natural light from the sun as much as he can.
And, he learned early on in his growing career that Mother Nature ultimately rules. “One of the things I used to say was, ‘we control the environment,’” he relays. “But, one day, a tornado ripped the roof off of my greenhouse. That was Mother Nature’s way of saying, ‘No, you don’t control the environment, I do.’ We will never have complete control of the environment. So, now I say we influence the environment in what we do.”
To maintain a sustainable operation, Bella Verdi Farms remains conscious about how much water they use. “We are very efficient with water,” Joseph says. “We use rain water as our primary source. And, anything that runs off, we collect and we use it again.” In addition, the farm utilizes beneficial insects to get rid of pests. “We are constantly looking at sustainability,” he says, explaining that keeping their operation local is a big part of the business. “We take advantage of not making stuff travel a long way.”
Although, Bella Verdi is not certified organic, Joseph uses organic practices to grow his fresh products. “I’m not a believer in the system the way it is, but I am a believer in organic farming,” he explains. “I can do in my greenhouse on an acre what it would take 20 to 30 acres of land. That is sustainable to me.”