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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Thinking Vertically: Food Systems of the Future

Two Idealist staffers recently attended All Day Buffet’s Social Innovation Conference, tantalizingly dubbed The Feast. Joanna reported back that she’d heard Dr. Dickson Despommier speak about his ambitious plans for reinventing how we farm. Dr. Despommier is the pioneer behind the concept of the vertical farm, a potential solution to the dual problems of rising populations and the pending farmland shortage. In the interest of helping good ideas travel, I started Googling the topic.

The idea is both simple and ingenious. Let’s build off the local food movement, reduce transportation costs and pollution, reduce deforestation, and reduce the need for pesticides by growing food in environmentally friendly urban skyscrapers. Imagine a 30-story building in the middle of New York City with its own irrigation system, recycling system, solar paneled roof, and enough food crops to feed 50,000 nearby people. Doubt all this food can be grown indoors? Hydroponic and aeroponic growing methods (researched by NASA for the purposes of space farming—seriously, the future is now) make it theoretically possible.

The price tag for such a venture is huge, and critics argue the plans aren’t cost-effective or practical. In this video from the Big Think Blog, Dr. Despommier responds to the naysayers: “The first one of anything is expensive.”

The idea is gaining attention and supporters. Dr. Despommier says there are 12 vertical farms being planned around the world. If you want to learn more about this big idea, check out the Vertical Farm Project.

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