Agriculture is arguably the oldest industry in the world. Farming enabled people to move away from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to start building civilizations. There’s no doubt that food production has come a long way since its origins. One company in Laramie, Wyoming, is taking agriculture a step further by bringing an innovative, 21st century approach to the farming world.
Bright Agrotech started in 2009 as Dr. Nate Storey’s doctoral thesis. What started out as research on aquaponics quickly shifted, and the concept of the Zipgrow Towers was born. Even though this vertical farming system was completely new, people caught on and Bright Agrotech started getting more attention.
Amy Storey, content coordinator and Dr. Storey’s sister, describes how “when you change the game, and make accessibility so much easier, then it creates this ripple effect that just turns into a tidal wave”.
Many farmers inherit land or an existing farm from their family. However, if a farm is not passed down to someone, it can prove to be quite difficult to get one started. A large amount of capital is needed to purchase an appropriate amount of land with good, arable soil, not to mention all of the equipment and resources a new farmer needs.
“The current system of inheriting farms is not a sustainable trajectory,” said Storey.
She went on to explain that if an aspiring farmer has a couple thousand dollars and a good work ethic, they can start a farm using the Bright Agrotech system. This is the goal of the company—to provide a much easier, more accessible way to start a farm.
THE ZIPGROW TOWERS
Amy Storey described the Zipgrow towers as Legos. They are fully customizable for the individual’s or community’s needs. The towers snap into tracks at the top and bottom, and can be any height.
“One of the biggest benefits in using it…is farmers can start in almost any space” – Storey
People can set up the Zipgrow towers in their basement, garage, backyard, or even “their closet” as Taylor, with sales, suggested. Farmers aiming for larger production use them in larger spaces such as warehouses or shipment containers. Quite a few new farmers are using these systems in their garages, where they are able to grow a surplus and actually make a profit.
These towers grow plants hydroponically. Hydroponics is the process of growing plants without soil. Nutrients that the plant needs are delivered through enriched water.
In the Zipgrow Tower system, nearly all water waste is eliminated because the system recirculates whatever the plant does not use. According to the USDA, agriculture is responsible for around 80% of water use in the United States. While many individuals and communities are putting forth great efforts to conserve water, it is difficult to make a dent in the issue when such a large amount is used for agricultural purposes. However, it is difficult to reprimand farmers and ranchers for using a substantial amount of water because they are providing food to support the population. While systems like the Zipgrow Towers won’t solve water issues, Taylor and Amy agree that this kind of technology is a step in the right direction.
The office, warehouse, manufacturing, and engineering are all within the same facility in West Laramie. The test area houses rows of the Zipgrow Towers. Different species of strawberries are currently growing in the test area to determine what types grow best in the tower system.
The lights are extremely bright, and some move back and forth. The cool bar lights were designed in-house. Water circulates through the lights and keeps them cool to the touch which prevents the plants from exposure to too much heat. They deliver correct wavelength and more photons than other indoor growing lights to optimize plant growth.
Everything is automated and requires little labor, accommodating a busy lifestyle. Taylor explained that the automated dosing system needs checked only twice daily, as it is constantly monitoring the pH, temperature, and nutrient parameters set by the farmer. There is also a CO2 generator which is extremely efficient.
Indoor farming yields year-round production because of the controlled environment. The growing season is very short in places like Wyoming, as there are merely three months without frost. This is an even bigger issue further North—“Alaska only grows around 4% of their food,” Storey explained. Food costs significantly more in areas far from production, and how being able to grow year-round would benefit communities.
“People want honesty and transparency; they want to know where their food came from” said Storey. Conscious consumers have started a large demand for locally produced food.
This explains the boom in urban farming, where a majority of Bright Agrotech’s systems are in place. This gives people a new connection to their food, because they know who is growing it and where it comes from.
Taylor gave an example about utilizing Zipfarms in Las Vegas niche markets. Higher end drinks are popular, one of those being mojitos. A key ingredient in the drink is mint. “If you take a 500 square foot space, and you fill it with mint, you can provide a…hyper-local, fresh ingredient, and make those drinks ten times better,” said Taylor.
Altitude Chophouse and Brewery in downtown Laramie showcases a farming wall on the side of the restaurant.
“All of this,” Chef Justin Sanchez gestured at the cilantro, chives, mint, and other specialty crops, “we use in the restaurant.”
Altitude dishes have included the food and herbs grown there for three growing seasons. It’s seasonal, though, which is why they are looking to expand production to the second floor of the building.
A sign hangs above the towers: “This wall grows food, does yours?”. Not only is the farm wall good advertising for the restaurant, but it can save money on purchasing herbs, and is incredibly popular with customers. Passerby will stop and admire, but have never harmed the wall. Sanchez also talked about how people always comment on the use of ultra-local food.
Even though the setup is outside, the crops have been more successful than gardens in Laramie. The early frost freezes plants in soil, but because water is constantly circulating in the hydroponic system, it doesn’t freeze until later in the fall, allowing the restaurant to have fresh ingredients later in the season than a traditional garden.
FOCUS ON THE FARMER
Innovation and industry change don’t stop with the Zipgrow Towers, though. “Focus on the farmer” is a recurring theme at Bright Agrotech.
Numerous services are provided to help even completely inexperienced farmers have success.
“95% of our content is free and transparent,” said Taylor.
Upstart University is an online training platform that anyone can use. Able is a completely free online service to aid new farmers in planning their farm and tracking from then on. Along with these interactive services, Bright Agrotech keeps an updated blog and You Tube channel.
“We can take someone who has never farmed before in their lives and provide them the resources to be successful, which is super important because then that accessibility component is completely changed” – Taylor