Sky Vegetables: Hydroponic rooftop farming for urban centers

Startup Sky Vegetables uses aquaponic systems for productive gardening on urban rooftops

Sky Vegetables: Hydroponic rooftop farming for urban centers

Most of us think of vegetables as being firmly rooted in the ground. Of course, congested urban areas usually don't have a lot of ground space available for growers and land is very expensive. Here's a business that aims to solve that problem by turning conventional wisdom upside down, growing vegetables up in the sky by building self-contained commercial aquaponic farm systems on urban rooftops.

Sky Vegetables says its aquaponic systems can grow 15 to 20 times more food using only 5 percent of the water required by soil-based gardens. This concept holds great promise for urban food deserts and also provides energy efficiencies to boot. With a growing percentage of U.S fruits and vegetables being imported from other countries and the safety and economic risks that poses, Sky Vegetables intends to produce fresh, local, safe, chemical free, nutritious food 365 days a year in our cities. If the company delivers on its promise, it can provide health and economic benefits to local communities.

Over the last year Sky Vegetables has completed architectural and engineering plans with its management and engineering team. They have identified several target locations around the country.  A proof-of-concept rooftop farm will be built in Brockton, Massachusetts; the company says this project is in the final planning stages. The Brockton farm of 66,000 square feet on top of an old shoe factory will grow an astonishing 850,000 pounds of herbs and greens. From its enclosed rooftop greenhouse, Sky Vegetables will distribute this food to local schools, hospitals, retailers, restaurants, and foodbanks all year round—despite New England’s difficult winter climate. 

Sky Vegetables brockton ma urban rooftop garden 66,0000 sq feet

 

These urban rooftop farms are also designed to address several building issues at once. For starters, they have the potential to improve a building's energy usage with a sealed green roof, shielding it from Summer sun and reducing/capturing heat loss in colder months to help warm the growing system. The system will also use carbon dioxide emissions from the building as an energy source for growing the plants and capture rainwater, reducing the runoff that taxes every big city's sewage system.

But the heart of Sky Vegetables’ mission is to make  available high yields of fresh food all year long.

Why do hydroponic techniques yield large amounts of food? In soil, plants expend a lot of energy expanding their root systems in search of nutrients and water.  They grow in that same soil until ripe. In a hydroponic system, no soil is used— naturally harvested liquid nutrients and minerals that will optimize the plant growth are put in water that passes directly over the roots.  This process allows for a continuous cropping all year long, as compared to a soil-base farm that averages only two to three crops turns per year. Over a hundred varieties of herbs, fruits, and vegetables can be grown with hydroponic techniques.

Sky Vegetables, through its CEO Robert Fireman, started as a result of a business plan written by Keith Agoada at the University of Wisconsin.Agoada, who is still with the company, was encouraged by his professorto work on a business proposition involving sustainable agriculture. In the course of his research Agoada spent time with Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, a nonprofit headquartered in Milwaukee. Growing Power uses aquaponics, a combination with hydroponics and aquaculture. Aquaponic systems are re-circulating systems in which plants and aquatic animals are raised together, with the animal waste providing nutrients for the plants Growing Power raises Tilapia and Golden Perch alongside salad greens, herbs and other crops in the hydroponic systems in its urban Milwaukee greenhouses.

Hyrdoponics and aquaponics

Agoada's plan was to take the known effectiveness of aquaponic systems and move it up to urban rooftops. His concept strong enough to win the University's annual Burrill Competition, run by the business school to encourage and identify strong business concepts. The $10,000 first-place prize certainly didn't hurt, but getting the rooftop greenhouse idea off the ground (so to speak) required more capital. So Agoada put together a gathering in Berkeley, CA in 2008 called the Building Integrated Sustainable Agriculture Summit, aiming to draft a rooftop garden plan that promised to be commercially viable.

Robert Fireman  found the ideas compelling. "I was moved by the passion of the attendees and decided to invest," Fireman said.  He formed Sky Vegetables with its Chairman Ron Simons and Agoada to define the business within these ideas, assemble a management team, and raise the necessary capital.

The Brockton farm will provide a great practical illustration of Sky Vegetables' capabilities. According to the company's website, farms of this type "will provide nutritious, chemical free, transparent, local produce, while reducing environmental damage. Sky Vegetables provides numerous benefits to partner cities including:

  • Increased access to fresh, pesticide and herbicide free, locally grown produce
  • Creation of new "greencollar" jobs
  • Improved nutrition to citizens
  • Decreased healthcare costs
  • Improved air quality
  • New educational opportunities
  • Localization of the economy
  • Creation of sustainable communities"

 

Sky Vegetables is still a startup with a lot of work to do — though one with no less ambition than to "revolutionize the rooftop," as Fireman told MyFreshLocal. It's a company and a concept worth watching, providing a great example of the potential for sustainable agriculture to not only support local health but local economies as well.

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