Here by the kindness of others
The Humidity Problem haunted us. When we had lunch at the Chinese buffet, we analyzed passive cooling methods, and when we slept, we dreamed about dehumidification. The problem was urgent. We were moving the farm into a new warehouse, where the sum total of HVAC equipment was a gas heater that the landlord said "probably doesn't work," and soon our lights would be lighting and our plants would be growing and water would be evaporating and the heat and humidity would skyrocket.
The previous summer, we had lived the heat and humidity nightmare as temps inside our hydroponic farm hit 85 degrees and humidity was 85 percent. Lots of plants struggle to grow in those conditions, but lettuce is hit particularly hard. The head of lettuce forms a stem, which grows up like a tree trunk, with leaves that shoot off the trunk like branches. The leaves twist and turn and curl, and when we showed the plants to our wives, they asked if we had invented a new species of plant. Disfigured lettuce we could deal with, but when it gets really bad, the whole organism starts to turn black. And then it rots.
The conventional strategy to deal with heat and humidity is, and this may shock you, air conditioning and dehumidification. There are experts out there that will design and install these systems; a couple of early estimates came in at $35-100k. To put one hundred thousand dollars into perspective, a big bundle of our chard sells for a whopping three bucks. The conventional strategy did not fit us.
Some great things in my life have an origin that I remember. I can envision exactly when and where and how I met the woman that became my wife. But after our brilliant HVAC idea emerged, it would be difficult to pinpoint its origin. It just came to be.
We would not treat the heat and humidity. We'd evict it.
We would install a fan to exhaust the humid farm air, and let fresh air flow inside. This was a no-brainer for the winter, when cool, dry air from outside was exactly what we needed. But the sophisticated reader may wonder what problem this solves in the summer, when outdoor air also happens to be hot and humid. Here was our logic: plants grow outside in the summer, so won't our plants be fine if we give them outdoor summer air? And if that argument instills a distinct absence of confidence in us as farmers, it won't be the last time you feel that way.
As a small business, our biggest problem is just our next problem, and our next problem was that we needed to cut two holes in the wall and install our fan. That may sound simple but it did not feel simple.
Joel and I are not the handy type. We use a screwdriver the way a toddler uses a fork. We didn't know where to start or how to identify which tools were needed for the job. Definitely something that cuts. We asked a friend of ours what we might need and he asked what type of wall we were dealing with. Uhh, the type that separates the inside from the outside?
In this culture, where we value and celebrate the individual, asking for help is difficult. But we were out of options. We had called HVAC companies we found on the internet and were told it would cost a minimum of $5k to do what we thought could be done for $300.
Enter Mike and Tyler, two guys from Joel's church. They worked in HVAC and construction and offered their help. First, Tyler confirmed that the fan we picked out would work, and he figured out some accessories we needed. Then we set a date, in November 2018, to do the installation. We had just added another rack of grow space, and with humidity creeping up to dangerously high levels, it wasn't a moment too soon.
When Mike and Tyler drove their well-supplied work trucks to the farm, Joel and I were like a couple of kids watching a giant tractor. What awed us the most was how quickly they got to work. No wasted movements. Joel and I spend 20 minutes crafting a reply to a customer who says they want kale instead of arugula, and Mike turned off his truck and 90 second later was drilling through drywall. It wasn't entirely straightforward. Mike switched tools a few times while Tyler had to fuss with the sheet metal to make it fit around the fan. And in an hour and a half the job was done.
Mike and Tyler helped us. They showed us kindness. In the moment, it felt more like they saved us. The effect was quickly evident as humidity plummeted 10 percent in 20 minutes. Our lettuce would not grow to be disfigured, rot would not be victorious.
We would not be here without the kindness of others. Strangers, friends, and those that love us. People who chose to help us when they did not have to. Under no obligation, with no compensation.
We like to think of ourselves, particularly in this culture, as solely responsible for our success. We never are. We tend to see ourselves as the star of the story. We usually aren't.
Joel and I hear tales of entrepreneurs described as "a force of nature." People who can't be stopped. By sheer force of will, their vision becomes reality, no matter the obstacle. Perhaps those stories are true, but it's not our story. Our story is that at each step, someone was kind to us, and we continued on this adventure only because of that kindness. Without it, we had no way forward. Perhaps we would have found a different way, but no doubt it would have involved the kindness of some other person. There are many examples.
In the summer of 2017, we were minutes away from signing a lease on a dumpster fire. By some stroke of blind luck, we decided to make one last call to Jeff.
Jeff had a beautiful warehouse unit: high ceilings, a carpeted entryway and office, a functioning air conditioner. Running water. You know, the luxuries. We had considered renting it, but it was just too expensive. The other place we were considering, the dumpster fire, was not beautiful. It was a tiny garage in St. Paul with no ventilation, and get this: no indoor water access. We grow plants in water and we were minutes away from signing a lease on a garage without a sink.
It's a miracle we've made it this far.
There were other signs the dumpster fire was a bad idea. The landlord took us on these adventures of phone calls, weaving sagas of his scandalous personal life into stories of his businesses in other states. He wanted us to put in the lease that we would only use his building for "research purposes." Also, we would be paying utilities for another unit, which allegedly had only a single-chair barber shop. Somehow we heard all this and thought, Well, I guess we can't pass this one up.
When we called Jeff to let him know we'd be signing a lease that wasn't his, he made a generous offer. He would structure the lease so that we paid less rent early on, and he would do significant electrical work that we needed. We called back the dumpster fire, said a very insincere Sorry, and signed with Jeff.
It didn't end there. Over the next 12 months, over and over, Jeff helped us. When we had electrical problems, he re-wired an outlet. When we had HVAC problems, he installed an exhaust fan in the ceiling. When we had a few things we needed to build, he lent us his tools and showed us how we might use his router. He had no particular incentive to do this. We were already contractually obligated to pay him our rent, and he didn't ask for a dime in return for his help. He showed us kindness.
Without it, we would be growing lettuce in a dumpster fire. Well, probably, Urban Greens would be a rather bitter memory, a chapter in our lives we'd be racing to forget. He gave us a break, let us get a start that we could afford, and then time and time again, got us out of a jam.
When I began writing this, I wrote Here by the Kindness of Others at the top. I wrote "Others" because of course our family will be kind to us. Of course our best friends will help us out. But the Others, the people we don't know well, the total stranger, those people that we expect nothing from, they have so often made a difference to us.
A previous version of myself believed all that really mattered was family and an inner circle of friends. As an introvert, I thought interactions with Others were fundamentally unpleasant. A phone call with a vendor, a waiter taking an order, or a neighbor in the apartment hallway, all moments that were essentially something to get over with. But here's the thing: that version of Andrew also spent many nights each week watching basketball and eating nachos until 1 am. He was foolish, and he was wrong. Interactions with Other people matter. Enrich our daily lives. When someone I don't know shows me kindness, or if I can show them kindness, we both feel good. It builds trust, it ties us all together.
One morning in February of 2018, a mere three months into our lease with Jeff, all of our plants looked just a little bit yellow. Joel and I raised our eyebrows at each other and pretended nothing was wrong. The next day, the plants were a little more yellow and maybe even a bit brown. This wasn't good. Our customers didn't want brown lettuce and yellow basil. Our empire was in ruins.
For better or worse, it wasn't quite as simple as the plants turning yellow and brown. Sometimes only a certain part turned brown, and there were patterns as to where the brown showed up, which we suspected hinted at a certain problem. We just didn't know which problem. We had theories, based on dozens of blog posts and white papers and YouTube videos from stoned hippies growing weed in their basement, but nothing quite added up.
There was a name that kept popping up on all of the most authoritative and trustworthy-seeming papers. This person was (and is) a professor at a major university out east. From what we could tell, he seemed to be something of an industry leader on this stuff. I wrote him an email. Hi, your stuff has been helpful to us, but we're new at this and we still have problems. Will you talk to us and help us figure out why we have brown plants?
It was a shot in the dark, like the kid who writes a letter to the governor asking for a new playground. But we got a response in minutes. He was happy to help - why don't we send him a few pictures and let's get a video call set up. He was true to his word, and days later, we unloaded our hearts to this stranger-turned-plant-therapist.
He talked us through the possibilities, gave suggestions, and clarified the most likely reason our leaves were turning brown, which wasn't quite what we thought. We now knew the problem we faced and could work on correcting it. (Jeff ended up helping us figure out the solution.)
Without the kindness this professor showed us, we would be delivering brown plants instead of green ones, and Urban Browns would not have lasted long.
These are examples of kindness showed us by strangers and friends. Without them, we would have struggled, and perhaps even shut down, but probably we would have figured out some other solution.
But I buried the lede. I haven't mentioned our real heroes. Joel and I are both fortunate to the extent that I can't capture with words. We were born to parents that could, and did, give us every opportunity in the world, and we owe everything to them. If strangers deserve an essay for their role in our story, our parents deserve volumes.
Two more people deserve a mention. (They deserve more than a mention.) Unsurprisingly, this business has not been a profitable one. So far. The amount of money it's lost would be enough to buy several reliable used cars. The endeavor has in some regards been a selfish one.
We each married amazing women. Amazing in many dimensions, perhaps the only strike against them the fact they chose us. Kindness is insufficient, what they have showed us is love.
I'll speak for myself: without Laura, this never starts. Joel and I are both working office jobs, probably still dreaming of starting this business. Laura heard my dream and raised it into ambition. She built up my confidence, convinced me I could do this, or at least enjoy failing. She gave me license to start and encouragement along the way.
We are the luckiest guys on the planet. And we're here only by the kindness of others.