Originally published in Issue 7
Chris Lukenbill at Fresh With Edge is differentiating his hydroponically-grown greens and herbs by delivering them to his customers while still in their vertical production towers.
Photos courtesy of Fresh With Edge.
As Chris Lukenbill and his wife Lisa became more educated about what they were eating and how their food was distributed they felt there were a lot of things that could be done better.
“There are a lot of things that are occurring in agriculture that need improvement is probably the best way to say it,” Chris said. “We felt that this was an opportunity for us. Since we both come with a computer science background, we were interested in aquaponics and hydroponics, which have a technical side to them. By day I am a web developer, that’s what I do for a full time job.
“Part of it was, if we don’t do it, who else is going to do it? It was a little of an arrogant attitude that we needed to try to do something. It was one of those things of it being hard just to sit in the background waiting for things to happen. I’m more the type of person who has a “go out there and get it done” attitude.
Looking for the right system
Prior to starting Fresh With Edge in Rochester, Minn., in February 2013, Lukenbill and his wife spent a couple of years researching various production systems. While attending The Aquaponics Association conference in 2012 they learned about ZipGrow Towers from Bright Agrotech.
“We were intrigued with this aquaponic/hydroponic growing system,” Chris said. “The original towers were designed for use in the Virgin Islands. The towers that we eventually began using were designed for use in northern climates.
“In our area there are a lot of people who are doing great things with local food markets. At the aquaponics conference one of the things people were talking about was how to differentiate aquaponically-grown or hydroponically-grown produce from everything else? There are a lot more inputs involved with them, but there are also a lot of advantages to them. It really comes down to the marketing aspect.”
Lukenbill said the ZipGrow Towers offered him the opportunity to take growing produce directly to the point of sale when it is ready to harvest. He said even though this required more hands-on education of potential customers, it also offered him the opportunity to talk with them and answer their questions about the system and the plants they would be harvesting.
Lukenbill started with 60 5-foot tall towers which hold about 600 individual plants. The addition of a new 30- by 84-foot greenhouse built at the end of last year has enabled Lukenbill to expand his production to around 200 towers. He is currently using about 60 feet of the greenhouse length with plans to expand production into the unused area.
Lukenbill said the fish used in the aquaponics system stay in the greenhouse. He initially started with tilapia, but is now using catfish.
“Last year we did aquaponics and we expect to do aquaponics next year,” he said. “Because of the expansion this year, we only grew hydroponically. Next year we are going to incorporate the fish and plants together. We are learning all of the different facets of production with and without fish. By doing hydroponics this year we were able to remove some of the variables so that it made the expansion easier.”
Lukenbill is producing a variety of crops in the towers, including herbs and greens. Greens include lettuce, kale, chard, bok choy and arugula. Herbs include sweet basil, lemon basil, mint, parsley, chives, thyme and tarragon. Normally there are 10-15 plants on a tower.
“We usually have companion plantings on a tower where we would have a lettuce and a bok choy or a kale and a chard,” he said. “Considerations for which plants are grown together include how they take up light compared to other plants and the speed at which the plants grow.”
Depending on the species, Lukenbill said it usually takes a crop three to four weeks from sowing until seedlings are transplanted into the towers.
“We don’t want the seedlings to be too large because then there can be issues with transplant shock,” he said. “Time to grow on in the towers takes three to five weeks for most crops. Thyme and tarragon take a little longer at seven to eight weeks.”
Lukenbill said he is using organic pest control products.
“We are using as safe as methods as we can,” he said. “We are using certified organic products. Although we haven’t gone through the process to become organically certified that might be something we decide to do in the future. Right now we are a small operation and we can have a personal connection with our customers. If for whatever reason we start to lose some of that personal connection then becoming organically certified might become a valuable asset for us.”
Really “fresh” produce
Once the plants are fully grown the towers are delivered to the customers.
“The towers are a fully contained hydroponic system,” Lukenbill said. “There is a DC water pump to irrigate the plants and an aerator that run on the same timer. The drip irrigation system is similar to what is operating in the greenhouse with the water dripping down from the top. There are few locations where there is actually enough light so that the plants continue to grow on the towers.”
Lukenbill said for most of his customers the towers are swapped out once a week. This year he has been focusing on promoting the system to local restaurants.
“We have a few restaurants that are doing farm to table,” he said. “For restaurants we usually deliver three towers of herbs and can mix-and-match a combination of six different plants. The towers allow them to harvest throughout the week. If they don’t use a whole tower of arugula, we can bring it back and regrow it and then take it back to them so they don’t have to waste anything.”
Lukenbill also works with a food co-op.
“At the co-op customers are supplied with clam shells that they fill. We supply four different varieties of herbs such as basil, parsley, mint and chives. A customer can come in, pick up a clam shell and fill it with whatever combination of herbs that they want and then they pay a standard price for it.”
Lukenbill said he is looking to expand the market for the towers with local grocery stores.
“The biggest market going forward that we see is the individual in-home systems,” he said. “We tested out a prototype this this summer. An individual system consists of a reservoir and a single tower that can fit in a home. The user will be able to swap out a full tower of produce at a time. They can buy a tower of produce, harvest that over a week to three week period and then when they’re finished with that, swap it out for a new tower of produce.”
Lukenbill said he is also looking at offering a 3-foot tall tower.
“The shorter tower would finish faster and would be easier to move around,” he said. “We would grow the plants in a 5-foot tower and then transplant them to the 3-foot one.”
Assisting other growers, the local community
Another area that Lukenbill is looking to expand is to provide other growers with software to use with the towers.
“We have a lot of metrics that we have collected along with spread sheets,” he said. “We receive a lot of requests from individuals about aquaponics-focused business plans. What they want to know is what are the numbers and how does this work out if they are doing this many towers, how many fish are needed and how much fish food is needed? There are a couple different ways that we are working on it. Right now we are focused on doing vertical hydroponic towers because that’s what we know best. We are using information from Bright Agrotech and the company is using our information. As we collect more information we will be able to help other growers determine their weekly production with the towers.”
Lukenbill is working with a local non-profit called Growing Home.
“It’s based on the concept of Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wis.,” he said. “We are doing a very similar thing using urban agriculture as a vehicle for education, job training and employment.
“There is a great community here of local growers, but there are some disconnects with members of the community and how they can be a part of that. The Growing Home program can help individuals with job training and educational avenues.”
For more: Fresh With Edge, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: For more information on Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wis., see the article in Urban Ag Products Issue 1.
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; email@example.com.