Taking urban farming to new heights in New Orleans

VertiFarms co-founders Kevin and Doug with one of their vertical farm installations on top of Rouses market. (Photo credit: Tulane New Wave http://tulane.edu/news/newwave/)

VertiFarms co-founders Kevin and Doug with one of their vertical farm installations on top of Rouses market. (Photo credit: Tulane New Wave http://tulane.edu/news/newwave/)

Astronaut. Firefighter. Trapeze Artist. Few occupations kids set their sights on at age 13 end up being a reality. Doug Jacobs begs to differ.

After visiting Florida’s Disney World theme park as a preteen, Doug was inspired to start a hydroponics farming business, a form of gardening that requires no soil, only nutrient-rich water, to feed plants.

“As a child, I was always scared about the inevitable lack of food in world, based on the fast pace of population growth,” says Doug, now 28. “So when I went to EPCOT and saw that exhibit on aeroponic farming [similar to hydroponics models], it all clicked. I thought, ‘This is the farm of the future.’”

After the visit, there was no turning back. Doug’s not entirely sure what kept his intentions afloat through high school, but he’s certain it was meant to be.

“It is hard to explain it,” he says. “I just had this internal drive that kept telling me this is the right thing to do. Also, part of it was a lot of loathing being stuck inside when I was in school and then at work. I day dreamed a lot. I wanted to be outside in the sun, growing food.”

But it wasn’t until moving from Florida to New Orleans to study at Tulane University that Doug started rooting his intentions to create a low-impact, mass-output farming system, not dependent on large plots of fertile land.

“In New Orleans, a lot of good soil is polluted by flooding and it’s a city—so there isn’t much open land to begin with,” Doug says. “With our vertical farms, those factors aren’t an issue.”

Vertical farms (or tower gardens)—six-foot-tall aeroponic gardens suspended in the air—are the core models of Jacob’s fast-growing company, VertiFarms. Motivated by wanting to offset the depleting supply of fertile farm soil, Doug officially kicked off the company with fellow student Kevin Morgan-Rothschild in 2012.

Now, the duo’s vertical farms are commonplace across New Orleans in restaurants wanting to grow their own herbs on site and teachers educating students on urban gardening. Rouses Market, a grocery store in downtown New Orleans, has been one of the business’ top clients, hosting more than 90 vertical farms on its rooftop.

But the interest hasn’t stopped at the city limits.

Doug teaches a local Girl Scouts troop about aeroponics. (Photo credit: VertiFarms)

Doug teaches a local Girl Scouts troop about aeroponics. (Photo credit: VertiFarms)

“We’re now working on selling our system to a town in Alaska,” Doug says. “And Vietnam already bought a few of our farms. It’s pretty incredible how fast we’re growing.”

Despite VertiFarm’s recent growth, Doug admits that it wasn’t always a smooth process.

“The up front capital is not cheap, that is definitely the hardest part of the job,” Doug says.

Fortunately, in April 2011, VertiFarms won a $10,000 award from Tulane University for its social innovation, giving the company a boost. Aside from that, however, the duo works hard on their own and in collaboration with New Orleans social entrepreneur incubator, Propeller, to secure grants and supporters of all sizes.

“But it’s something that works universally to make a global shift. So it pays for itself, really.”

However, Doug stresses that VertiFarms’ contribution to food security won’t save the world single handedly.

“We know we’re only one part of the solution. It takes changing diets and mindsets to start the change,” he says. “We’re just a piece of the puzzle.”

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Want to introduce vertical agriculture to your community, or know someone who’d be interested in using the model? Contact Doug at doug@ampsnola.com.

Learn more about Louisiana month at Idealist.

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A taste of local food solutions in New Orleans

Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation is a New Orleans-based nonprofit whose mission is to tackle the city’s toughest challenges by supporting the creative solutions of its community members. Guest blogger Julia Stewart talks about the successes they’ve had in bringing healthy food to those who need it most.

Propellerphoto

Photo by Rush Jagoe.

While New Orleans is known for being one of America’s most vibrant, fun, and culture-rich cities, it’s also a city that struggles with health and food challenges. There are approximately 30 grocery stores for New Orleans’ 350,000 residents, a statistic that marks the city as one of the nation’s worst food deserts. We also have one of the highest obesity rates in the country.

But it’s not all despairing. One area Propeller has made substantial investment in is healthy food access. By the end of May this year, we’ll have incubated 21 new ventures, both for-profit and nonprofit, in our Social Venture Accelerator Program. A little more than half have missions related to public health and food access.

From production to distribution to consumption, each venture offers a solution to gaps in the local food system. Here are a few we’ve helped get off the ground:

  • VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, VertiFarms, and Sheaux Fresh operate aquaponic, hydroponic, and/or traditional urban farms that grow produce for grocers, community members, schools, and restaurants.
  • Jack & Jake’s food hub connects local growers with large-scale buyers such as public schools and the New Orleans Convention Center.
  • James Graham of KIPP New Orleans brought one million healthy lunches to 20% of public school children in New Orleans in our first year, revolutionizing cafeteria food.
  • “Get Fruity About Trees,” a fruit orchard in the Lower Ninth Ward, recently won PitchNOLA: Lots of Progress, our competition that sources innovative strategies to utilize the city’s vacant properties.

Collectively, in just ten months, they’ve grown over 11,300 pounds of produce for the community.

It’s been our experience that to truly change our city’s dismal health statistics, cooperation is required at all levels from policymakers to grassroots groups.

Propeller is helping by doing what we do best: incubating new ideas, identifying the roadblocks to change, and connecting the players who can make real and lasting improvements.

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To learn more about Propeller-led initiatives, visit www.GoPropeller.org. Like what they’re doing? Visit them on Facebook or follow on Twitter.

Think these food solutions can work in your community? Reach out to Julia Stewart to learn more: jstewart@gopropeller.org.

Julia

Julia feels fortunate to be situated on the front lines of social innovation, helping New Orleans’ entrepreneurs transform their ideas into reality as Propeller’s Communications & Programs Manager. Julia received a B.A. in International Relations from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. In the past, Julia has worked on organic farms, and has written for several environmental publications including The Bear Deluxe, Table Magazine and Edible Vineyard.

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