Irvine: Planning Agriculture for the 21st Century – by Jim Pantaleo

In 1972 I moved to rural Irvine from nearby Huntington Beach, best known as Surf City, USA. At the time Irvine was the agricultural heart of Orange County in Southern California. I was 7 years old and a resident of one of the new housing tracts cum planned communities surrounded by farm land. Along with the fledgling University of California, Irvine, I remember the old General Store (with wood-planked floors and a post office) and a drag racing strip near the El Toro Marine base. In many ways Irvine was bucolic and open and a great place to grow up. Farming was ubiquitous but shrinking before my eyes with each new “Coming Soon” sign erected on freshly flattened fields – ready for streets to be carved and foundations to be set.

Most kids were aware of James Irvine and his massive land holdings which stretched many miles throughout Orange County. I was told of lima bean farmer Carl Segerstrom. I learned how there was an attempt to bring the eucalyptus tree to the United States in the 1860’s from Australia. Originally it was thought the tree could be used as railroad ties for the Transcontinental Railroad, but when cut, the wood bent and proved ill-suited. The noble tree, however, ended up providing a critical agricultural use for Segerstrom as a wind break for his exposed bean fields…and a most excellent place for a high tree house for a twelve year old boy and his older brothers.

Memories of smells remain vivid–from the fragrance of orange blossoms wafting into my bedroom at night to the not-so-fragrant odor of manure spread upon the fields seemingly once a week. Never mind my community’s park, swimming pool or tennis courts; it was those fields (and irrigation canals) that beckoned to me and became my playground. I loved those fields! It was a true Huck Finn existence; at least as much as one could have in Orange County in the early 1970’s.

Those familiar with Irvine today know that it is no longer known for its agriculture. Where strawberries, and, yes, orange groves once covered the landscape as far as the eye could see, now an explosion of planned communities and greenbelts reign supreme. Sadly, and by design, the Irvine Company, who has overseen the city’s development since incorporation in 1971, has reserved only 3% of city land be dedicated as ‘open space’.

By the time I graduated high school and left for the big City by the Bay, Irvine had an expanding population with scores of communities and miles of bike paths and winding sidewalks. I came full circle 25 years later to find my city had found a way to get back to its agricultural roots.

Look no further than Urban Produce, the city’s first and only indoor vertical farm run by Ed Horton and his family along with a top team of horticulture professionals. In a large, nondescript warehouse located in an industrial park just a short distance from where I rode horses on the Marine base as a kid, and near the spot where the drag strip was, is the place where some real magic happens.

After researching Urban Produce online, I simply walked in one day in late 2014 with no appointment. They had only been in operation for a few months, and the first thing I noticed in the lobby was a large sign welcoming Whole Foods. I knew I was in the right place!

My first tour of the ‘farm’ was a memorable experience and Ed could not have been more thorough in his articulation of the plants and processes (while protecting proprietary information). I’m sure my pupils dilated when I saw the floor-to-ceiling serpentine columns bathed in pink light with trays of wheat grass and baby arugula slowly making their way around a system leading through a series of “stations.”

The latter is to provide the necessary timed lighting and nutrient distribution, producing the desired taste profile and maximum yield per square foot. This patented system is called High Density Vertical Growing System (HDVGS) and is an engineering, automation, LED lighting and plant physiology marvel.

Given my recent journey into the world of Controlled Environment Agriculture, I was pleasantly surprised to find how technology, both hardware and software, my chosen vocation for the previous twenty years, is so strongly married with agriculture to grow clean and delicious produce. The baby arugula is out of this world, by the way.

Over the coming months I came to know Ed more personally and his goals for Urban Produce. To say Ed is a pioneer in the ‘field’ of indoor agriculture and vertical farming would be an understatement. With a background in software, he is thoughtful, laughs easily and is generous of time and spirit. I learned he is a man of great faith, and among other charitable work, he pays it forward by supporting local schools (students are brought in for educational “farm tours”). By doing this, Ed is literally planting a seed in the next generation of vertical farmers.

As I’ve aggressively studied this new industry over the past year, without question among national peers Urban Produce has a most compelling vertical farm and operational business model. They are not hobbyists. They are not wistful dreamers. They are dedicated to solving the real challenge of providing fresh, local, healthy produce grown with zero pesticides, 90% less water than traditional field farming and incorporating the highest levels of technology and science-based practices…all while making a profit.

And they are indeed making all the right moves; along with their science and technology investments, they are establishing solid relationships with top grocers, restaurants and well-positioned produce distributors. They quickly achieved the designation of USDA Certified Organic and have plans for expansion nationwide. The smart money is paying very close attention.

Farming in my home town is alive and well thanks to Urban Produce!

Website: www.urbanproduce.com

By Jim Pantaleo