Dr. Nate Storey founded Bright Agrotech, creator of the versatile ZipGrow vertical grow system, after finishing a PhD in aquaponics. Since it began life in a storage unit back in 2010, Bright Agrotech’s focus on customer service and education has seen its products adopted in indoor farms across the world. Ahead of his presentation at Indoor Ag-Con in May, we asked Nate five questions about Bright Agrotech’s adventures in urban agriculture.
1. Bright Agrotech’s ZipGrow towers have become hyper-popular with newer farmers in particular. What’s the draw?
For starters, the majority of new farmers today tend to start small and scale up as they gain traction in their markets. They aren’t interested in risking their life savings or an investor’s money on a complex, capital-intensive and fully automated system that requires substantial operating capital to maintain. They’re interested in jumping in quickly, learning the ropes of operating a hydroponic system and proving demand in their local market in the process. To do so they need appropriate technology that is easy to use and make sense from a production-volume perspective. We’re also finding that a lot of new farmers find the marketing opportunities of pick-your-own lettuce or basil live at market is a great opportunity for gaining exposure, building a brand and earning customer loyalty.
2. We often speak with folks looking to become growers who haven’t farmed before. How would you recommend that they learn about the industry?
Well, there are a ton of great resources out there- we’ve spent a lot of time building platforms for the specific purpose of educating people on the space. Upstart University, for example, is an online educational platform that’s entirely focused on sharing the knowledge we’ve gained over the last decade to help move individual farmers and the industry as a whole forward. It’s a bit of a labor of love, but we have over 1,300 farmers/students learning things that they apply to improve their farms and businesses and that’s really encouraging to us. Able is another tool we’ve developed to help growers improve their farm plans, reduce mistakes and simplify their farm operations once they’re up and running- it helps keep small farms on the rails. There are lots of other resources out there, but these are two big ones that we’ve seen help hundreds of farmers get started (with fewer headaches and more success).
3. We’ve seen a number of indoor farms shutter this year. What would you suggest that growers concentrate on to thrive?
Farming is hard, whether you’re doing it indoors or out. It’s easy for beginning growers to get sidetracked or focus on things that aren’t their core business and like any new business, scope creep can be really dangerous. Ensuring the farmer knows the difference between what makes their operation money and what’s just a distraction is absolutely essential.
It’s also really important to examine your base assumptions and make sure you’re actually solving a market problem. Who are your customers? What are they asking for? Do your customers know what they want? Is your farm capitalized appropriately to meet the demand of your target market. You’d be amazed how many growers have a hard time answering these questions.
A lot of the issues at shuttered farms also center around their base assumptions. A lot of folks think that indoor growing is only about space use efficiency or technology or about healthier food or something like that. These farms are guaranteed to struggle, because they don’t actually understand the problem they’re solving, so they frame their products in the wrong ways. So the question is: “Are you giving them what they really want?” and “Do you really know what they want?” As an industry, I think we tend to be a little arrogant around projecting our assumptions as producers onto our consumers.
Related to this question of assumptions is the idea that many shuttered farms closed up because many of them bumped their head against the realities of the market, and the fact that farms are hard things to run, especially at scale. While not the reason that farms close down, scissor lifts and other similar equipment are symptoms of flawed assumptions. They indicate a reliance on familiar architectures, a lack of awareness around the cost of labor, and an unfamiliarity with the needs of the plants. The tendency is to think of scissor lifts and similar equipment as necessary evils. They’re not. They’re ultimately just representative of an often flawed underlying production and business model.
At the end of the day, ensure that your assumptions are sound, measure as much as possible (you can’t change what you don’t measure), and read some of the great stuff out there on the farms that are working and the ones that aren’t. Here’s a good place to start.
4. How is big data going to change daily life for indoor farmers?
Big Data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, data science. . . these are important parts of operational optimization for farms as they scale when small percentages in cost or output improvement begin to represent more profit to the company. But let’s be clear, most of the applications out there represent relatively small improvements to farm profitability, for most farms. For instance, many farms can run at 90% or 95% efficiency if they’re very well managed, so you have to consider the value of that additional 5-10% and the cost of achieving it. At it’s core, indoor ag can be very efficient with very dumb systems- it’s not a complicated thing, theoretically. Where I believe big data offers the most value is in reducing operational expenses through feedback from analysis to system management, but only if it can be applied in highly cost efficient ways. Remember that eventually, this is going to be a cost-competitive industry and we need to all be laser focussed on driving out cost in ways that make sense. Saving $100k a year in operating expenses is pretty meaningless if it costs you $100k/yr to achieve that, or even $80k or $90k a year to achieve.
5. What’s the coolest crop you’ve ever grown in an indoor system?
Our team has personally grown everything from tomatoes, okra, watermelon and even hops, among other fun crops. We’re also lucky to have a super innovative community of farmers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible with our equipment and sending us photos of new things they’re trying out. It just reminds us that with the right tools, creative people will always do amazing things.
See Nate speak at the 5th Annual Indoor Ag-Con on May 3-4, 2017
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