Maryland 3.0: Growing Green with New Hi-Tech Start-Up on the Shore by Al Hammond

Consumers in Kent County have begun to see a new, locally grown type of lettuce in food stores and on their plates at local restaurants. Notable for its attractive appearance, good taste, and lack of spoilage, what’s really different is how it’s grown—by a hi-tech process known as hydroponics. That means it’s grown not in soil but in plastic trays through which water and nutrients flow, inside a climate-controlled, computer-monitored greenhouse. The lettuce is consequently pesticide-free. The process yields a new crop every 6 weeks, but with staggered start times for different trays, so that fresh product is harvested every day, even in winter.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 8.22.48 AMThis new crop comes from Red Acres Hydroponics, a start-up venture based in Worton, on the grounds of a family-owned farm that also produces grain, hay, and straw by traditional farming methods. But hydroponics is hardly traditional and indeed may be the future of farming.

For one thing, crops grown with hydroponics typically use only 1/20th as much water, about 1/4th as much land, and no pesticides, compared to traditional agriculture, and they don’t require big fossil-fueled tractors or harvesters: the process is very environmentally-friendly. For another, hydroponic crops often have higher nutritional content, because their nutrient intake (more than a dozen different minerals) and the levels of carbon dioxide (which is “oxygen” for plants) in the greenhouse are continuously monitored and adjusted for optimum plant growth by the computerized system. So hydroponic crops get a checkmark is the “good for your health” column as well. And for Kent County customers, the produce is extremely fresh—Red Acres Hydroponics ships to restaurants and food stores several times each week (daily when needed). They also sell direct to consumers at their facility at Red Acre Farm next to the Kent County High School.

So how did such a novel venture take root in Kent County? Therein lies a human story of coincidence and entrepreneurship straight out of Silicon Valley. The founding team consists of Bryan Williams, a hard-working farmer whose family has owned and run Red Acres Farm for over a century; Liza Goetz, who is an award-winning teacher of agriculture and science at Kent County High School (she was chosen as Kent County Teacher of the Year for 2015); and Billy Wessel, who also has extensive farming and business experience. Last winter, Bryan’s wife Tracey, who is the principal at Kent County High School and thus Liza’s boss, was looking for a way to put some large potted plants inside during the cold season, and asked Liza if she could store them in the school’s little teaching greenhouse. When Bryan delivered them for her (they were quite heavy), he bumped into a small demonstration hydroponic system that Liza had set up for teaching purposes, and he asked, what’s that? So, never hesitant to teach, Liza explained. Then a few weeks later Brian and Tracey attended a dinner and happened to be seated at a table with a man from the Farm Bureau. Just making conversation, Bryan asked, what’s new in farming these days? “Hydroponics,” the farm expert said, and went on to explain why it’s going to be big. So on the way home, Bryan asked Tracey for Liza’s phone number, called her, and started what became an intensive process of research and planning that soon engaged Billy as well, and Dr. Joseph Bauer, a professor of business development at Washington College (and not coincidentally Liza’s father), and lots of other advisors and friends (many of whom told the team flat out “You’re crazy to do this”). But the team eventually convinced themselves that starting a new venture might be risky, but it was not crazy—rather a real opportunity too good to pass up—and decided, “It’s a go.”

In typical Silicon Valley fashion, the launch happened (and is still happening) with the team working nights and weekends while retaining their day jobs—Bryan is still running his farm, Liza is teaching full-time at the high school, Billy is volunteering his time. Bryan obtained a loan, and the facility was built last summer, adjacent to an existing barn. It consists of a huge plastic tent stretched over a series of steel hoops and then filled with the growing trays, carefully sloped so that the water and nutrients flow from one end to the other. (See photos.) Hooked up to the tent is a nutrient feed tank, air circulation, and climate control equipment, a carbon dioxide generator, and a sophisticated computer brain. Production started in October, with the team giving away samples to prospective customers. But as the team found its feet and gained confidence in their ability to manage the hydroponic process—it looks simple but is an incredibly complex, data-driven operation—sales have ramped up rapidly. Five months on, their facility is nearing its full production capacity, and the team is already starting to talk about when, rather than if, they will build a second unit. Moreover, from a business perspective, the venture has already crossed a magic line that took Amazon and Google years to reach—it’s cashflow positive, although it’s still getting quite a bit of volunteer help—Liza’s daughter Lizzy, Bryan’s daughter Rachel and son B (for Bryan), who are often onsite starting new plants in the nursery or helping with harvesting, as well as Bryan’s mom and partner in the farm Miss Sis (who keeps the books and makes snacks for the volunteer team).

Red Acres Hydroponics production facility near Kent County High School in Worton.

Red Acres Hydroponics production facility near Kent County High School in Worton. It looks bucolic and simple—just lettuce growing in trays. But to make it work requires minute-to-minute monitoring of nutrient concentrations in the feed water and regular adjustments in carbon dioxide levels.

So far, so good. But it’s a fair question to ask of any new venture: Is this a flash in the pan, or something that could be significant for Kent County’s economic future? The customer feedback is excellent. Some of their restaurant customers have dropped their earlier suppliers for lettuce, most of whom ship from Florida or Arizona, because they found they had to throw away too much-spoiled produce. Others have told the team they value not only the quality of Red Acre Hydroponics lettuce (and the spices they now grow too), but, even more, the ability to call up this local business and say, “Can you get me three dozen heads before tonight?” The team also finds that individual consumers, as well as getting fresh produce in winter, really like the idea of supporting a local business. They are brainstorming new categories of customers, beginning to think about broadening their geographic reach to other parts of the upper eastern shore, getting more systematic about marketing and distribution. They will be creating full- and part-time paid jobs as they hire permanent staff. Just how big the venture can grow is uncertain, but it seems likely to become a significant local business at the least.

More importantly, if such a hi-tech green business can thrive here, it might help Kent County’s reputation as a place to do business, as a source of branded produce very much aligned with the national trend toward local, healthy foods, or as an environmentally conscious community. Might more such businesses make the county an attractive place to live for health conscious families? Might the success of one hi-tech startup attract others—especially given the prospect of good internet connectivity across the county? Might an incubator for new businesses being discussed at Washington College—one that encouraged and helped other small startups take root and flourish here—begin to generate real momentum? It certainly can’t hurt. Stay tuned, and pass the salad dressing.

Al Hammond holds degrees in Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Stanford University and Harvard University. He is a serial entrepreneur (having founded 5 enterprises) and a prolific writer (having authored or contributed to 16 books and nearly 200 articles). In the 1970s, he helped to edit the international journal Science, and went on to found and edit several national publications, including Science 80/86 (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and Issues in Science and Technology (published by the National Academy of Science). He lives in Worton, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

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