Sustainable Agriculture Startup Profiles
Mitch Hagney is Chief Executive Officer of LocalSprout, a hydroponic farm based in San Antonio, Texas.
When a hydroponic farm grows a head of lettuce, the story doesn’t start with a seed.
Every part of the environment has to be provided for the seeds before they germinate, including everything that nature usually gives away for free.
To make a plant’s conditions ideal, the farmer must also be a plumber, an electrician, an engineer, and a chemist. Even those growers with lots of experience often lack the construction expertise that building a hydroponic farm requires, so they turn to those whose sole business is building.
From new farmers, aquaponicists and sustainable agriculture entrepreneurs to urban farming pioneers, microloan providers and crowdfunding evangelists, yesterday’s 2nd Annual Seedstock Sustainable Agriculture Innovation conference at UCLA Anderson School of Management provided clear evidence pointing to the desire, will and motivation to develop economically viable and sustainable farming solutions to insure that the food system of the future not only survives, but thrives.
The two-day event, which drew an audience of nearly 250 from as far afield as New Zealand, Mexico and Korea, kicked off on November 5 with a sustainable farm field trip to Houweling’s Tomatoes in Camarillo where attendees were treated to an in-depth tour of the company’s sustainable 125-acre hydroponic greenhouse. Following the tour of Houweling’s, attendees headed over to McGrath Family Farms for a farm-to-table lunch provided by Chef/farmer Adam Navidi of Green2GO Restaurant Market. Following the lunch, farmer Phil McGrath gave the attendees a tour of his 5th generation organic farm and explained how he has used sustainable growing practices and direct marketing to remain economically viable. One of McGrath’s keys to farming successfully: “Grow a huge diversity of things and grow in season.”
In 2011, playwright, theater director and technology consultant Erika Block started the company Local Orbit with the goal of facilitating more efficient local food networks. By providing sustainable food producers with sales and business management tools, Block hoped the company could help address some of the inefficient infrastructure issues in our modern-day food system.
Over the past two years, Block has watched her vision for the company gradually transform into reality.
“Our team has doubled,” says Block. “We’ve tripled the number of markets on our platform. We currently support local marketplaces and trading networks in nine states, with over 500 food producers and 2000 buyers using the platform.”
It all started with a Facebook post.
Nick Papadopoulos was working as acting general manager of Bloomfield Farms, his wife’s parents’ 45-acre organic vegetable farm located in Northern California. One day, he found himself alone in the cooler after a farmer’s market, sipping on a beer and observing all of the unsold food that would soon become part of the farm’s chicken feed and compost bins.
Suddenly, he had an idea. Instead of giving premium organic produce to the chickens, why not give it to hungry people? So, he went online to Facebook and started typing. The original Facebook post offering leftover produce that started the cropsourcing website known as CropMobster can still be seen on the site today.
Sanjay Rajpoot, founder of hydroponic nutrient control system firm Sustainable Microfarms, was an early starter when it came to sustainable agriculture. Fascinated by Singaporean rooftop gardens at an age when most of his peers were more interested in X-Boxes, Rajpoot began researching his business at the age of 16, and was spending time with greenhouse automation expert Dr. Heiner Lieth at his UC Davis lab by the age of 19.
“One of my mentors growing up is an embedded systems researcher, so I was fascinated by the idea of creating better, cheaper controls for hydroponic systems,” says Rajpoot.
To meet world food demand in the future, agriculture productivity must increase by a factor of 1-2% per year, more than doubling total output by 2050, according to the Global Harvest Initiative’s 2012 GAP Index report. At the same time, global demand for biofuels is projected to increase by 133% by the year 2020, according to Hart Energy’s Global Biofuels Outlook Report.
Intensification of unsustainable agricultural practices to meet these competing needs often harms soil, causing nutrient depletion, erosion, salinization, and chemical, and allows the introduction of crop pests. The result: significant amounts of land are removed from production indefinitely every year. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates 1-2% of global cropland is removed from production annually due to salinization alone.
That statistic got the attention of Naveen Sikka, Founder and CEO of TerViva, an Oakland, CA-based sustainable agriculture startup aimed at developing new crops for marginal or underutilized farmland.
In 2007, Dan Merchant of Vancouver, British Columbia went fishing with David Suzuki, Canada’s most famous sustainability advocate, and had a life-changing conversation about fish food.
Aquaculture feed, to be more exact.
Commercial fish farming has long been criticized for its sustainability challenges; the fish feed produced from wild-caught fish, corn and soybeans is resource-intensive and competes for other uses, such as human consumption and biofuel. Grain-based animal feed faces the same sourcing and production challenges.
The conversation with Suzuki got Merchant thinking about methods of producing fish food more in harmony with nature’s design, noting that a staple food of many fishes is insects and their larvae.
What if growing your own food was as convenient as running out for your morning cup of coffee? SeedTabs co-founder Wyatt Roscoe hopes to make it just that easy by selling organic seeds at popular locales like coffee shops, bookstores, and grocery stores.
According to Roscoe, SeedTabs owes its existence to a several pound seed order that was a bit excessive for his small garden. Roscoe and his brother Will decided to share their abundance of seeds and began passing out small bags of seeds to all of their friends. At first glance, says Roscoe, people were hesitant to accept these small bags of seeds. “These drug-like baggies of seeds received confused looks that quickly morphed into smiles of appreciation.”