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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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