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