• Andrew

A year and a half ago, Joel and I sat on a white plastic picnic table in Little Canada while Jeff, our future landlord, explained revisions to the lease. We had dreamed about running a business together for years, and after growing lettuce in my basement for 12 months, we were finally taking the plunge. We signed a lease.

A few weeks later, on November 1st of 2017, we moved in. Joel bought donuts to celebrate the occasion, which was nice of him, though I soon realized all he needs to justify donut-buying is an occasion like "it's Tuesday." When he showed up at my house to grab a few supplies from my basement, Joel, who had just moved to the Twin Cities from rural Pennsylvania, chose to ignore the "No Parking" signs on the street. As I was backing out of my driveway to leave for the warehouse, Joel came sprinting across my yard. His car was gone.

It's been an eventful 17 months. We've started perhaps the first greens-delivery business of its kind - greens that are grown locally indoors, and delivered year-round straight to doorsteps. There have been successes and failures. We've delivered in 95 degree heat and in snowstorms. And we've learned a few lessons.

Lesson 1: Always listen to your plants

They will tell you when they're unhappy. Because neither Joel nor I have any formal background in farming, there's been a lot to learn. Certain types of romaine don't like high humidity. Kale doesn't do well with heat - the plant will still look and taste good, but it will grow oh-so-slowly. Basil is one of our most popular items but can be finicky. Sometimes it will refuse to take up a crucial nutrient, like iron, and growth will stall. Our troubleshooting abilities have come a long ways, though I'm sure there's still much to learn.

Lesson 2: Always listen to your customers

When we first decided what to offer, we were guided by feel, instinct, and a few conversations with prospective customers. We had never sold produce subscriptions before. (Come to think of it, we hadn't sold much of anything, except for some lemonade in 1998.) A year in, we had the impression that the three products we offered weren't a great fit for all of our customers, and perhaps we were even turning away potential customers. So we changed it up. Now, we offer boxes in three sizes: 3 items, 5 items, or 7 items. And customers pick exactly what they want - though if they still crave some mystery, they can select a rotating green or herb, and we'll choose for them.

Lesson 3: Move closer to home

This past November (2018), we moved to Columbia Heights. We're now just a couple miles from where we live, and we have customers within blocks of the farm. Our goal has always been to be a community-centric farm, and being located in our community is extremely important to us. We've been thrilled to be so close - our customers know exactly where we are, and some have even stopped by to see the farm.

Lesson 4: Running a small business requires...a lot of different skills

Many warned us: when you're running a small business, you do it all. Joel and I started this adventure with engineering degrees and, unfortunately, a disappointing lack of any discernible small business skills. So far, we’ve learned graphic design tools to develop a logo and launched an advertising campaign on social media. We've learned how to build hydroponic racks with Unistrut, EMT conduit, and pallet racking. We now have complex opinions on specific varieties of basil (Genovese all the way!) and on optimal dimensions of insulated styrofoam containers. We've learned the ins and outs of the commercial real estate market.

We do the deliveries and we mop up the spills. We answer customers when they have a problem. We make (not enough) sales calls. We have long "working lunches" at the Chinese buffet. We envision what the business might look like in 5 years, and then try to figure out how to pay the bills for the next 5 weeks.

We've learned the double declining balance method of depreciation because we do our own taxes. We've designed flyers, banners, and business cards. Well, Joel has. We've harvested at 7 am on a Saturday so we can sell freshly-harvested kale at the farmers market. We've spent approximately 28% of our waking hours thinking or talking about HVAC. We have spreadsheets for everything, built from scratch, that almost crash our computer each time we open them.

And of course: we plant seeds, transplant seedlings, and harvest the greenest lettuce you've ever laid eyes on.

Lesson 5: Take away Joel's admin privileges on the social media accounts

After he posted this picture, I obviously had to change all our passwords.

Social media spats aside, Joel and I have had a blast running the business together. We’ve been dreaming of this since college, and we’re aware of how fortunate we are to have this opportunity. Sure, it’s not perfect. We argue frequently. Joel sings, hums, or whistles constantly when we’re in the farm. (He says he has perfect pitch. He’s wrong.) He claims that I disagree with everything he says. (NOT TRUE!)

But the good far outweighs the bad. We love working together to build a rack that we’ve spent months designing. On a Tuesday morning, we can reminisce about high school tennis and minutes later pour over a spreadsheet as we figure out how to optimize our plant density. There’s no doubt we work better as a team than we would individually, and we hope we’re able to work together for years to come.

  • Andrew

We believe there is value in buying from local businesses. We believe life is better when our transactions are not with nameless, faceless corporations but instead with people we know.

Two scenarios: In one, you buy lettuce from the grocery store. You don’t really know where it came from - maybe Arizona or California - or who grew it. You certainly don’t have a relationship with the people that grew it, and you don’t care about them in a specific way because you don’t know who they are. And vice versa. They don’t know you, your name, or where your kids go to school. It’s a purely transactional relationship, with lots of middlemen in between.

In the other scenario, you buy your lettuce from a cutting-edge local urban farmer. Just for the sake of the story, let’s say he’s 6 feet tall, strikingly good-looking, and excels at tennis. This guy lives in your neighborhood. You share mutual friends. Maybe your kids play soccer together.

There’s an incentive for him to sell you high quality food and treat you fairly. It’s essential if he wants his business to thrive. You know him and a bunch of his other customers (and potential customers); it’s quite easy for reviews to spread, good or bad. And if bad reviews spread, it doesn’t just mean his business is in trouble. It means his reputation is in trouble, which can be even more damaging.

On top of that, now you know exactly where your food is coming from, which is fun. In the first scenario, it’s just a salad. In the second, it’s red romaine lettuce that was grown down the road, harvested this morning, and delivered by the guy who planted the seed. How cool is that?

We don’t think there’s anything wrong with the first scenario - buying lettuce grown by some mega-food company at a mega-chain grocery store. Those companies provide jobs, and they get a decent product on your plate for a decent price. (A lot of good things have come from specialization and long distance trade.)

But when you buy local, there is an element of trust and “what’s good for you is good for me” that's missing when you buy from a large national company.

Lastly, we are not growing and selling lettuce to get rich. (Pro tip: selling lettuce is a terrible way to get rich.) When you buy our lettuce, the money doesn’t filter up to shareholders. We’re going to spend the money at Chimborazo, or Anchor, or Bark and the Bite. Or at one of the 683 breweries in Northeast Minneapolis. We live here, so the money stays here.

When you buy local, the whole community wins.

  • Andrew

Updated: Jan 4, 2018

Does indoor hydroponics make sense?

Great question - one worth asking. We grow hydroponically, where plants grow in water instead of soil, and indoors, so they never see the sun. And after thousands of years of successful farming in the sun and soil, our way sounds kind of crazy. Why try something different? Does this make sense? Here’s what we think – the pros and the cons:

More produce per square foot

On a square foot basis, we grow more greens than conventional outdoor farms. Other hydroponic farms make grand claims about their productivity - “We grow an acre’s worth of vegetables in 8 square inches!” We don’t make claims about exactly how much more efficient we are than outdoor farms, but one study suggests that farms like ours grow 10-20 times more produce per square foot.

Lower water use

Again, we see a range of numbers here. Some claim hydroponics uses 90% less water than conventional farming. Others say 95%. Because our systems use water that recirculates rather than drains away, we use much less water than conventional farms. This is especially beneficial given that much of Minnesota’s leafy greens would otherwise be grown in the Southwest United States, where there are major water shortages.

We grow closer to you, the consumer

Many of the greens at the grocery store are grown in California and Arizona, more than 1500 miles away from Minneapolis. We grow in Little Canada; our produce travels less than 20 miles to reach you. This means two things: 1) our produce is typically in your fridge within a day of harvest, meaning it tastes better, lasts longer, and less is wasted, and 2) less fuel is used in getting it there.

No pesticides

We think that chemicals designed to kill shouldn’t be on our food. Good for you and the environment!

Come on, there have to be some downsides.

You’re right. The way we see it, there’s one main downside.

Artificial light required

Our plants don’t see the sun, so we provide artificial light, which requires energy. For all the gains in land use, water, and transportation, there is a price. And we pay it in energy.

Thankfully, there have been major innovations in LED technology. We use horticultural LEDs that emit the precise wavelengths of red and blue light that are most important for photosynthesis.

Beyond the technical reasons above, indoor hydroponics makes sense to us because we believe there is value in knowing exactly where our food comes from. We think there’s value in buying from small businesses; from people who are a part of our community. More on this coming soon.

All in all, we think indoor hydroponics is innovative, beneficial, and worth doing. But ultimately, we won’t be the ones to answer the question - you will.