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Challenge Cup

Urban Farming Startup Uses Hydroponics to Grow Produce Locally, Anywhere


Hydroponics may be synonymous with marijuana. But the technology of growing plants without soil can be used for a far wider selection of crops. That’s the idea behind Local Roots Farms
, a startup using hydroponics—and old shipping containers—to grow produce indoor year-round. The company’s big idea is to make farming local through modular farming units that can be placed anywhere, no matter the geography or climate.

Cofounder Dan Kuenzi competed in the D.C. Challenge Cup and won the cities category. He’ll go on to the Challenge Festival to compete against other regional winners next May. Here, Kuenzi explains his startup’s mission and progress so far.

What is the problem that you’re trying to solve with Local Roots?

Throughout the United States there is a widespread lack of access to fresh, healthy and affordable locally-grown produce. In D.C., for example, our lettuce travels over 3,000 miles on average before it hits our shelves. The shipping process can take up to 10 days, adding high-fuel costs and resulting in short shelf life. These high food miles also can have a big, bad impact on taste. Many of us have experienced the disappointment of bringing home a bagged salad only to find it spoiled in less than 48 hours, or that it tastes little different than crunchy water. It doesn’t have to be that way.

I consider myself lucky, though, because so many Americans live in urban food deserts, where retailers don’t find it profitable to build stores or sell high-quality produce. It’s hard to eat healthily when the good food is either too expensive or nonexistent.

We are trying to address both issues by growing locally everywhere.

You and some of your cofounders come from the investing side. How did you come up with an idea like this?

Yes, we all come from early-stage finance backgrounds. A few of us have been hobby gardeners in the past, but starting this business has certainly been our crash-course in farming. The more we learn about this technology and the impact it could have, the more passionate we become. We see this as a great opportunity to help shape a brand new industry – one with incredible potential for positive societal good.

The company is new. But how new exactly?

We started product development last year, making sure we designed a system that could grow as much produce as possible in a very small space and with a minimal carbon footprint. We first had to make sure our farms are as easy as possible to deploy and operate. We did this by putting our technologies inside 40-foot recycled shipping containers. We’re now to the point where in each container, we can grow the equivalent of five acres of conventional outdoor farms each year.

Our process is called “Controlled Environment Agriculture,” a term that is growing in popularity. Basically it’s the process of taking the same seeds that grow outside and putting them indoors under optimal growing conditions. Think of our systems as the next era of greenhouses; instead of using sunlight we use energy-efficient LEDs. We do this so we can stack our crops vertically and create a miniature version of the “skyscraper farm” Dr. Dickson Despommier describes in his book “The Vertical Farm.” Growing indoors allows us to achieve year-round production in any climate or geography. Even if it’s snowing, raining, or 100 degrees outside, the “weather” weather inside is perfect for growing healthy plants.

We place these containers on vacant lots or underutilized urban areas and start growing pesticide free, non-GMO produce to sell to our local communities.

Where are you growing now and next?

Our first farms are in Los Angeles. We’re finalizing our taste-testing now and hope to roll out in stores toward the beginning of 2015.

Where to next? We’re not quite sure. We can put these farms anywhere—and we’d like to place farms in every major city over the coming years. Ideally we will start by partnering with city governments and customers who share in our vision. Obviously we see an ability to make a big impact on the East Coast where growing seasons are short and local produce is unavailable for much of the year. I’d love to put a few of our farms in D.C. as soon as possible.

Lettuce, you’ve said, is your first crop. Then, during the pitch competition you taunted everyone with the idea of offering strawberries in the dead of winter. What’s the reasoning for going with those crops first?

Let me start by explaining what we can grow. Our systems are hydroponic, meaning we grow without using soil. We provide our plants with organic nutrients dissolved in water as well as support structures for the roots. As a result, trees and root vegetables like carrots and beets are not possible with our current system. But other than that, just about anything can be grown hydroponically. Part of the reason we’re starting with lettuce is that it creates very little waste. Our systems use 80 percent less water than conventional agriculture, and almost all of the water that is “lost” in the system goes into the lettuce itself. Lettuce is a thirsty plant!

As such, our focus so far has been on a variety of leafy greens and herbs. Our farmers are still trying many things out to see what grows well in our farms. The tricky part is our technologies are so new that we’re not quite yet sure how best to use them.

 Yes, though, we also taunted the audience with strawberries. We’d love to grow them and a whole host of other crops down the road.

Talk me through how this physically sets up and looks.

Imagine that inside of each container we’re growing floor-to-ceiling with as many plants as possible. What we envision, at a high level, is creating a distributed farming network by arranging these containers differently depending upon our customers. For example, we can put a single farm in front of a retail store or we can deliver from our farms to local restaurants. We’d also love to open our doors and sell directly to community members, as a new-age farm-stand of sorts, ideally in urban deserts where farmers markets don’t exist. Our high levels of production should allow us to sell the produce very affordably.

What was your experience like at Challenge Cup? What did you get out of competing?

It was exciting! It was the first time I’ve pitched this business, and I honestly thought there would only be about 50 people in the audience… boy, was I wrong in that regard.

I thought the entire event was a wonderful demonstration of the entrepreneurial spirit in D.C. It’s been incredible to see the community grow so much even over the past year that I’ve been a part of it. Our entire Local Roots team is very honored to have been selected amongst so many great companies and incredible! It’s just such an exciting time to live in this city and be part of this community. Thanks again to 1776 for bringing us all together.

What are your plans between now and the Challenge Festival to grow and improve Local Roots?

We’ve got plenty of hard work ahead of us… just like with any start-up there are a million things to do. We are very excited to begin selling our produce and getting feedback from customers, to see what other great-tasting crops we can grow, and to make a difference in our local communities.

It’s very exciting to have won and also a blessing to have a few months here to continue become an even stronger company for the finals in May. I’d say that I can’t wait until May… but that’s only partially true. We have our work cut out for us between now and then!

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Melissa Steffan

Melissa is the former assistant editor for 1776, where she worked on the media team to create compelling, idea-driven content and reporting. A Seattle native, she graduated from Seattle Pacific…

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