Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Urban Harvest KC wants to whet your appetite for aquaponic farming

Urban Harvest KC takes city farming inside.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 at 7:00 AM


Eric Person moves between garden beds, his left hand holding a spray wand attached to a container of liquid compost. He is trying to prevent mites from attacking a small field of microgreens, the cash crop funding the expansion of his new farm, Urban Harvest KC. The temperature is near freezing outside, but Person appears comfortable in a T-shirt and a Kansas City Royals cap. He checks his watch, glances up and winces as he looks directly into a 400-watt bulb above the garden bed.

A pair of grow lights - the only illumination in what was most recently the back room of a Mexican bakery - shine down on Person, 38, and his business partner, Jason Irish, 33, as they tend to their crops: wheatgrass, hops, strawberries, peppers and tomatoes. Surrounded by walls, never touched by daylight, these and other plants are part of Person's aquaponic farm, an indoor ecosystem of plant and marine life. (See sidebar.)

The beds are arranged in plastic bins suspended a couple of feet off the floor by wooden frames, suggesting a row of bunks. White PVC piping delivers water from an opaque white cube in the corner of the room - a 375-gallon fish tank, home to 24 goldfish, which hums to the rhythmic heartbeat of its pump.

Person knows that the lights and the black shade over the street-level window might lead people to wonder just what Urban Harvest is growing. He remembers the first time he tried to tell the beat policemen in his neighborhood what he was planning for 2100 Summit.

"The officer told me, 'I'll keep an eye on you,' " Person says. "We laughed, and then he said, 'No, seriously, I'm going to be keeping an eye on you.' "

Urban Harvest started, as so many other farm systems have, with an attempt to solve a pest problem. But Person's pea plants weren't at the mercy of the usual varmints or insects.

"I couldn't grow anything past a certain point without my cat attacking them," Person says.

Person, an avid gardener who typically turns his tomatoes and peppers into homemade salsa to be given at Christmas, had noticed another, nonfeline hazard: temperature. Irish, too, was having trouble. "The last couple of years, it's been getting hotter and hotter," he says. "The season is extended, and nothing wants to bloom. Weather is going to be an issue."

The friends, who both garden and work in the energy-efficiency sector - Person helps homeowners secure energy-efficiency rebates; Irish is a draftsman for a firm that specializes in solar installation - wondered if there was a better way to farm. Last August, recalling the grandmother who had grown houseplants in an aquarium, using it as a miniature hothouse, Person converted a guest bedroom in his West Side house into a small laboratory. He paired a 10-gallon aquarium with a plastic bin from Home Depot. He started with six plants.

By December, Fish Veggies Farm (the first name of their enterprise) had taken over the shop on Summit Street. After work, Person and Irish would come to build new garden table beds and plan the layout for their urban space.

"It looks like a lot of work," Irish says. "But it's very simple. If you've got a fish tank and some rocks, you've got a garden."

Aquaponics, widespread in New Zealand and Australia, is still in its early stages in the United States. Anton's Taproom last year became the first local restaurant to install an aquaponics system, raising tilapia, lettuce and herbs in the basement of its Main Street restaurant. Kansas City Food Circle Co-coordinator Dave Lawrence says several companies sell or install aquaponics equipment, but he calls Urban Harvest the first commercial aquaponics farm in Kansas City.

"We keep seeing small organic growers and biodynamic growers coming up with new ideas to keep food close to home," Lawrence says. "It [aquaponics] is a way to augment and extend the growing season. It's about reducing our costs and improving our outputs without having to engage a lot of synthetic products or chemicals."

On a recent cold afternoon, the front room at 2100 Summit - where the Don Miguel Bakery used to sell tamales and Mexican pastries - houses a crate of potatoes, as though a farmers market has just begun unloading. There's more food on the way - Urban Harvest is open on First Fridays, and the farm's community-supported agriculture (CSA) program began at the end of February. The bulk of the fruit and vegetables for sale this weekend is coming from Huns Garden, in Kansas City, Kansas. Farmer Pov Hun runs several Saturday stalls at the City Market.

"We're going to let people come in and pick whatever they want," Irish says. "And the more we grow, the more we can add on each week."

Irish and Person are looking for potential meat and bread partners to augment their CSA offerings. And those aren't the only expansion plans. Irish wants to use a walk-in freezer to grow mushrooms, and they want to raise and sell tilapia. (To do the latter, they'll have to secure a health permit from the city.) They want to keep bees on the roof (having already picked up a license and permission from their landlord) and have been talking to Sue Bee Honey about setting up an apiary.

Lynda Callon, executive director of the Westside Community Action Network, says a market full of fish, produce and honey is exactly what this neighborhood needs.

"We do have people that have limited transportation," she says. "Anytime you make healthy food accessible without having to get in a car, that's a good thing. It can't get fresher than two blocks away."

In the space's backroom, Person and Irish are experimenting with various setups. A table from Person's spare bedroom has been repurposed here, and a triangular tower ringed by PVC piping is a work in progress.

"We do this with everyday stuff," Person says. "It's all stuff that people have lying around their house. But you have to remember that everything you put into your system eventually goes into your system."

The goal for now is to use this 1,600-square-foot space to grow a series of specialty crops, rather than raising a one-vegetable bounty. The series of beds uses from 30 to 50 gallons a week, and the electricity bill (the grow lights run on 12-hour cycles) is less than what Person and Irish pay in their homes.

"With aquaponics, we can break the tradition of how much food you can get in a confined space," Irish says. "We can grow closer and stack things."

Beds of microgreens, pea shoots and wheatgrass are coming up. The microgreens and a tray of mache lettuce will be sold to restaurants such as Affäre and the Farmhouse. A bed of hops, originally conceived as a pick-your-own operation, has already been claimed by a local startup brewery expecting to go into production this year.

Person envisions taking his operation even bigger, a 10,000-square-foot area in the West Bottoms. "What if Associated Wholesale Grocers didn't have to ship lettuce from wherever they ship lettuce from?" he says.

But before Urban Harvest's produce appears on store shelves, the farmers know they need to educate the public. That means workshops at the KC Food Circle's Eat Local (& Organic!) Expos March 30 and April 6.

"This is something they should teach in high school, like math and science," Person says. "If everyone learned this in high school, they might not have to go without jobs or food."

Jason Irish and Eric Person are scheduled to present to 1 Million Cups, a program of the Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation, Wednesday, March 20.

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