A Revolution in Agriculture – Part I

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a week you know that the three of us like agriculture.

The world has structural issues with the food supply which won’t disappear soon. The age of farmers is ticking ever-higher, with average ages in the United States, Great Britain and Canada approaching 60, 60 and 55, respectively.

Few of us “young folk” want to get down and dirty, but as Jim Rogers says, those that do are likely going to become rich.

Since I aspire to be a farming junkie with a Maserati, I have been building relationships with entrepreneurs in the advanced farming space to engross myself in the industry.

Through my digging, no pun intended, I have spoken with many snake oil salesmen and few, actual down-to-earth farmers who understand their products, and farming for that matter. Naturally some stand out from the crowd…

My new friend Nate Storey, founder and CEO of Bright Agrotech, LLC, is one such guy. The following is part one of a conversation we had about his business and where he believes the industry is headed. Enjoy!

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Scott: Nate you graduated from the University of Wyoming with a Bachelors degree in Agroecology in 2006 and just completed your PhD. What were your ambitions for going the “agricultural route?”

Nate: Well, I’ve always been drawn to agriculture, as a part of my family history, but also because it’s an interesting industry with a lot of potential to be improved.

I really started thinking about agriculture when I was living in China in 2001 and 2002. The inefficiencies I observed there were remarkable, and when I returned to the States and started looking at first world agriculture, I continued to be amazed at the inefficiency of it.

All I could see were the monolithic production and distribution chains, the logistic inefficiencies, even fundamental production methods that were not being used because of lack of education on the part of the farmer, or because of short-sighted production goals.

When I looked at these inefficiencies I saw so much room to improve many different aspects of the industry that I thought this was a chance I couldn’t pass up.

So here I am, a decade later with a PhD in agronomy and a drive to build a newer, more efficient industry that delivers value to consumers and producers and rejects a lot of the traditional costs associated with production and distribution.

Scott: Give me the quick and dirty on your company, Bright Agrotech LLC.

Nate: Well, Bright is basically an agricultural equipment R&D and design firm. However, we are increasingly becoming a hybrid business that farms as well.

I started by developing vertical hydroponic towers that improved the productivity and application of vertical production techniques. Once I figured out how to increase my productivity, I started to think about how to use the equipment we would need to develop to reform the distribution process — taking advantage of the structural changes of the industry as a whole and the changing cost structure of greenhouse production.

Currently, we are in the middle of developing the products necessary to make those changes possible.

Our business and equipment focuses on the emerging class of small to mid-sized producers that are looking to market their products locally, but still need to control their costs – especially major production costs like energy and labor.

Scott: Some of our readers might not be familiar with hydroponics. Can you elaborate on the process?

Nate: Hydroponics is soil-less plant production. That is, plants are grown in a nutrient solution with no soil. This type of production is often done in greenhouses and is significantly more productive than soil agriculture. Mostly, hydroponics lets producers exert much more control over the environmental and growth requirements of the crop, which leads to better production.

With no soil, a fertilizer is typically mixed into a soluble solution at a specific concentration which is then circulated to the plant roots. As time goes on the solution can be changed and balanced to make sure that the concentrations are perfect for that particular crop.

Scott: The process sounds simple but it’s really an art form. You’ve surely refined your procedures countless times.

Nate: Yes, it definitely requires some technical sophistication. That’s an apt observation – it really does approach art. The masters have all learned from masters themselves. It’s remarkable, but in many ways the master grower community does resemble more of a medieval network of artists than a community of scientists and technicians.

Scott: Ambitiously, you’ve designed and patented your own hydroponics system. With so many existing systems in the marketplace why didn’t you just take one off of the “shelf?” Why did you go the extra mile?

Nate: Well, I was pretty unhappy with many of the designs that I saw in the area of hydroponic production. Few of them have changed since the 1970s, I mean, that’s crazy! How many industries do you know that have survived for four decades with almost no equipment design changes? Sure, production has increased slightly over that time, but not in part to any real improvements in the basic production equipment itself.

I knew that there was room for improvement, especially in applications that met the changing needs and demographics of farmers. Knowing that vertical hydroponics had a great deal of potential, but was outdated and a higher cost structure than horizontal production methods, I started from scratch. The focus of the redesign centered around taking into account the cost of production as well as the end function and the needs of the consumer.

The last four years have been spent building, testing and running different analyses on production variables. In the end I came up with a system that significantly improves both the productivity and functionality of traditional vertical production units. An added bonus is that the system kicks open the door on a number of awesome market applications that haven’t been tried before!

Scott: I’ve spoken with dozens of people in the industry, the vast majority of whom were good salesmen and not much more. With so many overpriced and inefficient systems which don’t live up to the hype, tell me what’s special about your system. Give me some specs.

Nate: Well, our towers aren’t an adaptation of a different growing technique to new production variables… that is vertical hydroponic production. Our towers are an entirely new way to grow vertically.

Because we built the system with cost-reduction in mind, our cost basis is much lower and we get more productivity per square foot of growing space compared to other vertical systems. We also focus on using natural light to reduce costs; a neat side-effect of shifting the plane of production from horizontal to vertical is that our seasonal production changes appear to be reduced, since even during the winter plants get full light (just reduced amounts due to day length).

Our newest greenhouse is pretty neat. We built it with tower production in mind, and minimizing energy consumption. The result is a greenhouse that typically requires less than $150/mo in total energy costs, a majority of which comes from renewable energy sources. We are growing almost entirely with towers and getting around 3 times the production of horizontal hydroponic techniques.

The system is incredibly simple, with 5 components: fish tanks; an in-ground sump tank; feed lines that run the length of the greenhouse; and, a drainage system that returns water to the sump and the racks of towers we grow in.

Water circulates from our fish tanks with nutrient dense waste to the sump tank where it is pumped to the towers. The towers capture the waste where microbes and redworms living in the towers convert the waste into plant available nutrients. This process also cleans the water to be recirculated to the fish. Because we capture all of our water, we typically expend less than 80 gallons per day (or around 2% of our system volume).

Scott: You just touched on this, but give me some more colour on yields. This being where your system blows others out of the water, give me a best estimate as to what your system can produce in comparison to soil-based agriculture.

Nate: Well, hydroponic production produces on average around 6 times what is possible in field agriculture (if we average a whole bunch of different crops). Using towers, we can consistently return 3-4 times what is possible with traditional hydroponic methods, per square foot. So, many of our crops produce in the range of 18-24 times as much per square foot as field agriculture. Again, this is only for certain crops. Some crops, like oregano, produce more than this and some crops produce less, like cilantro.

Scott: Nate, that’s amazing. Can you ship a couple of these towers over to Asia? I’m sick of eating Chinese-grown vegetables (laughs).

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We’ll continue this interview with Nate on Thursday… Meanwhile, if you have an immediate interest in what Nate is doing, head over to his Kickstarter project, Grow Up! Vertical Farming for Everyone.

- Scott

You’ve got to stop doing all the things that people have tried, tested, and found out don’t work.” – Michael Dunlop

Comments

  1. this is not hydroponics this is aquaponics. BIG difference

  2. Rich,

    This is an aquaponics system but all you need to do is swap fish for liquid nutrient and you’ve got the same system.

    Best,
    Scott

  3. There is a previously funded kickstarter “windowfarms” that seems to have atleast one advantage over bright’s solution in that the plants can be replaced individually rather than all at once.

    • Mark Wallace says:

      Jon,

      There are a lot of competing systems. In fact, anyone with a bit of skill can probably rig something similar themselves and get it to work. I grew a window garden in a 16th floor apartment in Uruguay in the winter. This is easy stuff, really.

      I think the point of the piece, and really our reason for focusing on this topic is just to get people to start thinking about alternatives. We’re so used to shrink-wrapped everything that we forget what food really is and where it comes from. Seeds want to sprout, they want to grow. The effort necessary is really minimal compared to the value you get from the end result…in so many ways.

      Thanks for reading!

      Mark

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