From Orchids to Organic Hydroponic Produce – A Q&A with Sundial Farms’ Tarek Hijazi
October 4, 2015 | Trish Popovitch
California water regulations prompted San Diego-based Sundial Farms to switch from growing orchids to producing organic hydroponic produce in 2012. The farm is also pioneering the use of liquid organics fertilizers. Seedstock last wrote about them here in December 2013.
Seedstock caught up with Tarek Hijazi, manager of finance and hydroponic systems for Sundial Farms, to get his take on the challenge of growing produce amid California’s drought. Hijazi will be a panel speaker at the 4th Annual Seedstock Sustainable Agriculture Conference on November 3-4 in San Diego. HIs panel will discuss indoor growing and the pursuit of market demand.
Seedstock: How does a business major and medical device agent become interested in sustainable agriculture?
Hijazi: In school I was studying finance, but I was just building up business acumen. After school, I got my first job in San Diego. My health was not optimal and I started going to farmers’ markets where I ran into Sean, who is the owner of Sundial Farms. He said he was bogged down with paperwork and would I be interested in helping out. Over the last three-and-a-half years, we have transitioned a 5,000-square foot greenhouse to just under 25,000 square feet, growing all 100 percent hydroponic, certified organic produce. At one time, we’ve grown up to 12 varieties. It’s been cool to go through this transition and use every one of the skills I learned in college.
Seedstock: Speak about Sundial’s indoor growing model. What’s unique about your system?
Hijazi: We use the nutrient film technique and recirculating hydroponics. For us, it seems to be the best option given the climate we have here. Our whole system is geared around our property and the way it’s situated. The thought of deep water culture has come up before, but the whole idea of water conservation geared us towards NFT. In our situation, it’s the best setup for our style of growing and also what we try to achieve as far as sustainability practices. In the NFT, we are 100 percent certified organic. We have little to no runoff. Any water used on the property is recaptured. We’ve got pomegranate trees, pecan trees and all sorts of fruits and vegetables around here that we like that we irrigate with our runoff. We are trying to be pioneers here, paving the path to redefining hydroponic growing. It’s amazing to be in a position to be one of the first people working with liquid organics and being successful with it and providing for our community.
Seedstock: Not everyone can afford to bring in financial and regulatory specialists. What one thing can small producers do to help themselves in this area?
Hijazi: I think the Agricultural Marketing Service for the USDA National Organic Program is helpful. Their website is very interactive. I reach out to people to have them understand my questions. It’s a matter of self-educating. Yes, I do have a financial background, but at the same time I had to interact with regulators and figure out what the requirements were.
And yes, it’s a financial commitment to reach out to a consultant. Yes, you are going to spend some money, but if you get yourself a good understanding of what you need to do, it’s worth it. I feel like people can figure this out. It’s a matter of protocol and bringing that protocol into your business. That’s what I did when I came here; I formalized things.
Seedstock: Share your thoughts on the California drought. What can we learn from this agricultural crisis?
Hijazi: We can take action. I try to set goals for our company and our farm as far as water usage goes. We don’t need to have our tanks full; we can ration that out. Setting goals like that and also observing what other people are doing. I mean it’s tough, the drought has affected everybody. I just think we have a lot to learn; how to be more sustainable and how to be more effective and purposeful with our intentions.
Seedstock: Do you see controlled environment agriculture as the future standard in California?
Hijazi: There is a capital investment to hydroponic farming that thwarts a lot of people. I understand that, and I respect that. We’ve experienced our fair share of problems. I do think the movement is trending towards more controlled environment agriculture. It seems to go in and out but if we continue to do the things that we’re doing, I think more people will become interested in it. If I could encourage ten people to grow some plants in their backyard and sustain themselves for a couple of weeks, I think that’s amazing. It’s about decentralizing the food system.
Seedstock: Is regulation for organics a hindrance or a help to the small grower?
Hijazi: I wouldn’t say it’s a hindrance; it’s more an obstacle. It’s something you have just to do. There are rules for good reason. Honestly, I wish some of the rules were a little bit more strict. Coming from a medical device industry and working with the FDA on a regular basis, I mean if something’s going into someone’s body… don’t you think food should be the same way?
Going certified organic was a big financial commitment. Going to get a non-GMO label, to get a kosher label? I mean that’s just impractical. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not feasible. I can understand why people are frustrated. I just want to feed people.
Seedstock: What aspect of your business will be the focus of your conference presentation?
Hijazi: We’re trying to be pioneers here, paving the path to redefining liquid organics and hydroponic growing. There are only a handful of people out there that are doing this. How cool and how novel is it to be one of the first people working with liquid organics and being successful with it? We’re decentralizing the food chain, and that’s huge.
I feel like we’re taking it one step further. In conventional hydroponics, you are using salts, nitrates, things that are mined. That’s one way to derive those minerals and nutrients. Another way is people are taking seeds and extracting the oils from them. Those oils, be them legumes or sunflower, peanut or corn or whatever, they’re using them to produce an organic matter that is a nutrient source for plants. It’s been cool the last three or four months to experiment with a whole list of liquid organics and see how they interact with our plants.
Seedstock: What is the best piece of advice you would give to a potential hydroponic business owner?
Hijazi: Make sure you plan everything out. I know as much as plans change, have a plan. Have a concrete plan. I would recommend going to other operations where they interact with hydroponics and know about the things that are going to happen. If you think about systems management, how things are supposed to flow, and you observe that on a chart, and you think about your business logically like that, things should work no problem.