Hydroponic Urban Ag Startup Seeks to Create Scalable, Sustainable and Affordable Model to Feed Cities
December 4, 2012 | Melonie Magruder
Cityblooms is a food revolution waiting to happen. The Santa Cruz startup is now developing a comprehensive system to grow hydroponic microgreens on a commercial scale, but it came from humble beginnings.
The company was founded in 2001 by Nicholas Halmos, then an undergrad at Brown University. He was working on a junior year entrepreneurial project, when he and his friends decided to experiment with hydroponically grown tomatoes, and a light bulb turned on.
“I have been into urban agriculture longer than most,” Halmos said. “Even though I never particularly had a green thumb and we had no idea what we were doing.”
He started by buying a tomato plant at Home Depot, washing off the soil and encouraging hydroponic growth in a setup in his bathroom. The plant exploded with fecundity and Halmos began having dreams of feeding an urban nation.
Within two weeks, he dropped his history major and spent the next two years studying urban agriculture. This fed into an urban renewal program with the Rhode Island School of Design. As a private pilot, he would fly over urban landscapes and look down upon empty rooftops, envisioning home gardens thriving on top.
As part of an experiment, Halmos snagged a discarded shipping container dumped in a rough, cement-strewn, industrial area and set it up as a hydroponic urban greenhouse. The basil and arugula that he grew flourished wildly, although, he said, “I can’t say that we did well financially.”
So he ended up attending law school; but could never quite kick the idea of creating a viable urban agriculture model.
“I ended up coming here a few years ago to pursue a solution,” Halmos said (a girl helped lure him to California). “I knew there was a niche in the Urban Ag movement, but it was going to require some serious R & D.”
Three years later, Cityblooms operates a farm in Central California, experimenting with dozens of varieties of microgreens, all grown through careful hydroponics. Their produce mostly goes to supply local soup kitchens, in keeping with the Cityblooms core philosophy of community service.
Halmos is aided in the development of Cityblooms by Production Manager Alexis Walker, a marine biologist whose goal in life is to make the company “100 percent sustainable,” with as little impact on the environment as possible.
“In an urban setting it is hard to get produce that is sustainable, yet affordable,” Walker said. “We’re trying to only use clean energy, but it’s a challenge. We even forage into old cars to find something that we can repurpose to help with energy transmission.”
Walker is in charge of growing the hydroponic microgreen plots of alfalfa, arugula, clover, fenugreek, pea shoots, negi (a tiny, intensely-flavored bunched onion), mizuna and fusion micro salads.
They use a renewable burlap-type growing pad to anchor the seedlings in little trays, which Walker carefully hand-irrigates with hydrogen peroxide-treated water (“It’s my chance to be close to the babies,” she said). A capture system allows them to reuse water again and again, upping the sustainability factor. And their turn-around on some crops is a mere, high yield, two weeks.
Walker said they are experimenting with filter systems and adding nutrients to the water, which would normally be present in soil.
“As a marine biologist, I worked on water sheds and water testing, so I know a lot about necessary ratios,” Walker said. “The whole idea is to reuse water so that urban agriculture can really be an affordable option. Nothing goes to waste.”
Cityblooms is working on the idea of rooftop gardens or even mini greenhouses that can be situated to take advantage of expansive rooftop acreage. The challenges are numerous.
“Do we have a sustainable business model yet? No,” Halmos said. “Then there are city planning offices, OSHA, weight and coding restrictions, retrofitting, engineering issues and even competition from other hydroponic growers.”
Halmos said that CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) inspectors couldn’t even certify them as organic because their growing methods don’t fit any models the CCOF holds; they were unable, for example, to collect soil samples. But Halmos is not too worried.
“There are lots of discarded industrial spaces out there and a huge demand for this kind of produce,” Halmos said. “I am confident we will be out in the larger marketplace in a very viable way, very soon.”
Cityblooms already has patent applications pending and Halmos has developed plans for two pilot projects to launch next summer.
“Rooftop agriculture,” Halmos said. “Once we get past pricing and regulatory hurdles, we’ll have something unique to bring to the marketplace. Time will tell.”