Originally published in Issue 9
Dan Albert, owner of Farmbox Greens, made the decision to start slow and expand his vertical farm system on his own terms rather than seeking outside investor capital.
Dan Albert’s first exposure to vertical farming came in 2008 during a design competition for the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual conference.
“The architecture firm I was working for at the time in Seattle, Wash., sponsored a team of young designers to develop a conceptual architectural design that met the newly developed Living Building Challenge,” Albert said. “The concept of the competition was to design a carbon neutral building that was self-sufficient. The building wouldn’t consume any more energy or water that was found on the site and would achieve a high level of sustainability. During the development of this design the vertical farm idea really captivated my interest and became one of the main drivers for this conceptual building.”
The design project won both regional and national awards. Albert said the design was not created specifically for a public entity or private developer.
“We ended up coming up with this concept for a vertical farm, which at the time we didn’t know was a vertical farm,” he said. “The idea of bringing food production indoors in a greenhouse façade on a building wasn’t really being done per se in 2008. I became friends with Dr. Dickson Despommier at Columbia University and got to work with him on a number of other early stage design concepts.”
Albert said there was a lot of theory behind growing food in the city, but not a lot of projects being done. He increasingly received questions from developers about how a vertical farm works, what kind of revenue it could generate, and what is the business model for a vertical farm.
“After two years of talking with people who were excited about these projects, I concluded no one was answering the hard questions about how vertical farm systems work and where are the real efficiencies,” Albert said. “Through the process of working on vertical farm projects, I decided I should try growing with a vertical farm.”
A lot of trial and error
Although Albert worked on a farm in upstate New York as a youth growing alfalfa, hay and corn, he didn’t have any experience growing edible crops.
“I made the decision to really educate myself on highly productive urban farming systems,” he said. “I attended the Greenhouse Crop Production & Engineering Design Short Course at the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. I also did research into different companies and different production systems.”
Albert purchased an aeroponic system in 2011 and started a prototype research farm. He trialed this production system for about eight months.
“It was a total learning curve for me,” he said. “In Seattle, warehouse space is expensive and hard to come by. I set up the aeroponic system in converted office space. The floor had carpeting so I had to put down a subfloor and waterproof everything. It was a lot of trial and error. Initially I was going to grow salad greens because they are a high value product. It is also a crop that is highly perishable.
“I quickly realized that the yield was so little out of this unit that provided 100 square feet of production. But that kind of jump started me to thinking about how to turn this into a business.”
Focused on year-round production
As Albert became more comfortable and confident producing edible crops he started to rethink how he was growing.
“I had people telling me to scale up the production,” he said. “There was a lot of interest from investors. People were saying let’s scale this up. I started to rethink how and what I was producing.
“I kind of stumbled upon growing microgreens and culinary herbs as a highly perishable, high value product that chefs wanted. Essentially I was already growing microgreens, but I was letting them continue to the baby green stage at 17-20 days. I started to harvest them after 10-14 days instead. I pitched the product to a couple of restaurants and all of a sudden people were buying our microgreens. I started selling the crops as Farmbox Greens in 2012.”
Albert said one of the challenges of having a small production space was to determine how to use it to generate the most revenue.
“Even though I had limited space, the intensity of production that I could generate with microgreens enabled me to produce 52 harvests or more a year. It comes down to producing the same thing every week and having the right process in place. I have taken a Lean approach to growing great food. It’s a different model from some large greenhouse and vertical farm operations. I don’t have venture capitalists backing my company. It’s small for local food production.”
Focus on clean, efficient production
Albert purchased a new home in Seattle in 2012. The property included a 500-square-foot detached garage, which he is now using as his production facility. He restarted Farmbox Greens in February 2013 exclusively producing microgreens and culinary herbs.
Although Albert is still using his original aeroponic system, he redesigned the components and developed a vertical farm system. Microgreens are grown in trays on a moisture pad. The plants are fertilized with a recirculating nutrient film technique system. The NFT system consists of a pump, a water reservoir and a series of manifolds that deliver the water.
“The system has been modified so that I can grow microgreens efficiently,” Albert said. “I still use the original aeroponic system, but it is not the main focus of my production anymore. I have installed one vertical system that is three levels of production and another that has five levels. I don’t need a lot of vertical height in order to grow multi-levels of microgreens. In the same building there is a harvesting area along with refrigeration and storage space. It is a functioning revenue-generating farm.
“I have been fortunate that I haven’t needed to take on partners and I’ve been able to bootstrap it and expand. I have been able to pay with everything from cash flow. But the bad part is that it takes more time.”
Albert said when he was designing the vertical production system he chose the best equipment he could afford.
“I put in Philips LED Production Modules as the primary lighting source in a stacked arrangement,” he said. “I am using a high efficiency Energy Star Friedrich heat pump to cool and heat the facility. All of the environmental controls are within the building. I’ve also purchased a Hanna nutrient dosing system to measure the nutrients and pH as well. I have a very specific formula for growing microgreens on a small scale. There is no need to be operating a huge farm.”
Albert said one of the most important aspects of trying to run a sustainable operation is not using any chemical controls for insects and diseases.
“I manage pests and diseases by being vigilant and keeping the facility and equipment clean,” he said. “There is very little substrate for insects and diseases to come in and become established. Also, the crops don’t stay in the facility very long. I grow only what I am going to harvest so that there is no waste.”
Albert applies Lean principles to his “just-in-time” approach to crop production.
“The Lean approach is kind of here’s what you need just in time,” he said. “It is based on efficiency. I tried to develop a system where, for example, today I am planting for next week’s harvest. I’m basing the planting on what was harvested last week, what I sold and what I’m projecting to sell. What I harvest in the morning is sold out in the afternoon or the next morning.
“I don’t keep anything in the refrigerator for more than three days. I don’t want to be holding product. Once you do that it hurts the quality, hurts the flavor and the overall look of the microgreens. I also want to be sure that my customers use all the product they purchase. I don’t want them to have any waste. It’s all about harvest, package, cool and deliver and then do it again.”
Diversifying customer base
Farmbox Greens’ customer base includes about 30 restaurants that purchase product on a weekly or biweekly basis depending on time of year.
“The restaurants vary from very high end to everything in between,” Albert said. “The food is very high quality, but it is not all at a premium price point. Some people hear microgreens and they just assume it’s going to be expensive. These are restaurants that care about local, high quality food.”
Albert produces 15-20 different varieties of microgreens and herbs on a weekly basis.
“When it comes to microgreens, there are certain flavor profiles that chefs are interested in,” he said. “I try to have a wide variety available, including peppery, crunchy and something lemony like sorrel or baby kale. I could grow a wider variety of crops, but on the herb side it comes down to just a few basics, including basil, cilantro and sorrel.”
Farmbox Greens also participates in four year-round and five seasonal farmers markets.
“I have been really focused on building our customer base at the farmers markets,” Albert said. “These markets are really well attended in Seattle. I am looking to build up our retail at these markets for the first half of this year.”
Another company that Albert is working with is Marx Foods.
“This company is a local food distributor, but it also has retail space, so I sell some of my product through its store,” he said. “Marx Foods also distributes to AmazonFresh, which is grocery delivery service. Marx wants to promote local, high quality products in its store and online. It is very committed to supporting local businesses and selling a variety of products including artisanal foods.”
Albert said his company has done well in terms of being able to meet demand.
“I have been able to balance what I’m growing with what I’m selling,” he said. “The next step is to identify the scale of production that I need and the customer and crop mix. My company can get bigger, but microgreens aren’t this unlimited market. It’s about cash on hand to build out the production facility. It’s about costs. It’s about efficiency. It’s about customers.”
To learn more about Farmbox Greens:
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; firstname.lastname@example.org.