Agra Tech Plays a Role in the Helical Outpost® Project

Helical Agra Tech

As one of the world’s leading manufacturers of commercial greenhouses, Agra Tech in Pittsburg, CA is always looking for new and innovative ways to improve the industry and a huge part of that is acting as consultants for cutting-edge companies. One of these examples is their involvement in the Helical Outpost® project, a sustainable, state-of-the-art, plug-and-play food, water, electricity and communication system that comes in a box and can be easily transported. It is intended to create global goodwill, reduce poverty and hunger and improve health for communities here in the United States and worldwide.

So, what exactly is a Helical Outpost®, designed and manufactured Helical Holdings, a company with its headquarters in Lafayette, LA? Well, in simple terms, it is a sustainable, integrated, and relocatable hydroponic greenhouse and power station featuring satellite Internet access and a water filtration system that produces up to 2,000 gallons of clean water daily, generating up to 10.8 kilowatt hours of commercial grade solar power and yields approximately 2,300 crop units per week.

Helical Agra Tech The-Outpost-can-utlize-several-different-growing-setups_-shown-here-is-a-hybrid-set-up_-half-NFT-and-half-vining-crops

Inside Agra Tech Insulator 30 greenhouse with NFT Hydroponics and Vine crops

The growing capacity with the Helical Outpost is impressive and designed to have an immediate impact on a community’s food and entrepreneurship options rather quickly once implemented. Its hydroponic farm uses 80% less water and produces more produce in 6,000 square feet than the equivalent of 3 acres of conventional farming in the soil.  All of these resources unpack from a shipping container with plug and play capabilities that can be easily deployed nearly anywhere in the world, according to the company’s website.


Helical leaf-lettuce


Helical lettuce

Lettuce ready to pick

How did this amazing project begin and how many Helical Outposts are currently in operation? We asked Helical Co-founder, Kohlie Frantzen. “We were inspired by the experiences of combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan witnessing the need for basic resources like food, water, electricity and communications,” he said, noting that the veterans observed, “If a man’s family is starving and he doesn’t have any options, when someone asks him to pick up a gun in return for food for his family, he will likely do it. But if he has options and his family is fed, he is more likely to say no to something like that.” Frantzen noted, “There are currently two Outposts up and running in Virginia and Louisiana. Both of these Outposts are training hubs for veterans to learn how the Helical Outpost operates and is used for fresh, local produce.”


Helical kids-humanitarian-relief

The concept is to provide humanitarian relief anywhere it is needed.

Interestingly, Frantzen noted that the need for Outpost standardization and relocatability is not limited to international applications. “We discovered the need for accessible resources is just as important across town as it is across the world.”

To refine and develop the concept, Frantzen decided to tap into the experience and knowledge offered by Agra Tech for advice about the greenhouse aspect of the Helical Post project. “The people at Agra Tech are committed to the greenhouse industry and we could see instantly that they wanted to be involved in some capacity,” he said. “Adam Pound and the rest of the Pound family brought their knowledge and skills to this project to come up with solutions that would work for us. We were working on making it as modular as it can be and also standardization is another big factor. We now have a standard system that can easily be set up and integrated into the community quickly and Agra Tech played a role in all of that.”

With a promising future and a goal of changing the world one Helical Outpost at a time, Frantzen is hopeful and not afraid to imagine big things. “In the song Imagine by John Lennon it says–‘You can say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  And I hope someday you’ll join us…’ We have a group of artists, scientists, fabricators, war veterans and other great innovators working on this project and none of us are afraid to imagine and dream about a great future. This project will always be changing and evolving as technology evolves and changes,” he said. For instance, solar panels became more powerful and affordable now than when we began the project. If we could have 1,000 Outposts out there in the world helping communities to solve so many issues they currently face–that would be phenomenal. As we strategically rollout this solution and it continually proves itself and gets better, while working with Agra Tech and other industry leaders, we can only anticipate big, big things.”

Article by Edmund Attanasio

Helical AgraTech Lights

Agra Tech’s Jim Bergantz Makes Permitting Presentation at 2016 Indoor Ag Tech Conference

Agra Tech, Inc. is one of the largest manufacturers of commercial greenhouses in the Western US, but they do so much more than selling structures and growing systems to greenhouse farmers. Since day one, Agra Tech has played an integral role in helping to advise the entire industry and assisting people as they enter this field. To this end, the experienced and highly-skilled professionals at Agra Tech speak at seminars, conferences and other events. They don’t get paid for these presentations, but do it for the betterment of the industry as a whole.

Recently, Jim Bergantz, a sales engineer for Agra Tech, made a presentation in front of 150 people at the 4th Annual Indoor Ag Conference in Las Vegas. The title of his speech was Navigating the Road to Obtaining Your Greenhouse Building Permit.

The blog team at Agra Tech sat down with Bergantz to discuss the ins and outs of permitting and his knowledge about the topic–accumulated by helping customers with their permitting over the past decade.

Q: Tell us about your background in permitting and how you’ve helped your customers to attain permits for their projects?
I gained a lot of experience by building my own home and as working as a sales engineer with ATI. I have worked with a wide range of customers pursuing permits, helping them with their research and working closely with builders and customers as they navigate through this potentially arduous process.  By developing relationships with building department contacts and permit acquisition specialists, I have accumulated a vast amount of information that I can use to help our customers who need permits before they can build their greenhouses. By knowing the obstacles and pitfalls, I can guide them through the process and help them to find the right resources.

Q: Organization is the key. Tell us why and how you help your customers to be organized in this process?
Thinking the entire process through is important. If you know what to expect, you won’t run into surprises that can delay the permitting process. In some cases, there are things you can anticipate, like Kit Foxes on your property and the environmental concerns associated with that. But by carefully preparing the information that will be required, including things such as the structural engineering for the project, our customers can put them in the best position that they can possibly be in. Things such as local regulations will change, but if you’re organized, you can deal with them and get the permitting done as drama-free as possible.

Q: What are the areas where people seem to drop the ball when it comes to permitting?
By not providing the correct answers and by not completing the proper information for the building and planning department. It is not an easy process and some people get intimidated. They underestimate the time that it takes to get a project online and in some cases, they think they can do it alone.

 Q: What is your success rate in this regard?
We have a very high degree of success, because between all of us at Agra Tech, we have well over 300 years of greenhouse engineering and manufacturing experience combined.

Q: Is it a trial and error type of thing? It seems like a lot of these permitting projects have to be re-submitted before they go through?
It’s an investigation type of thing, depending upon the location of the proposed greenhouse and the depth of the requirements. When resubmission is required, we are there to help and provide as many answers as possible regarding the structural engineering of the Agra Tech greenhouse and we are in the loop until we get the project online.

Q: How can you find a good, reliable person to help your customers as they navigate through the process?
The first thing we tell people is ask everyone  concerned–local contractors are  an excellent source, county offices and the local economic development  department are all good places to start. In each area, it is different. It could be a contractor or a retired building department employee or an engineer. For example, in Stanislaus County an electrical contractor has a team of engineers and strong relationships with county departments. Another one is in San Diego County, where a retired building department official who knows the ins and outs of obtaining permits in that county is our go-to person there. Therefore, it differs based on the region.

Q: So, it is tougher to get building permits in certain states/regions?
Definitely. California is one that requires a very organized approach, while Florida, on the other hand, makes it relatively simple, comparatively speaking.

Q: What role do you play in these permitting projects?
I am a resource and project advocate and my role is one of support and guidance. I help our customers understand what is involved and prepare them for what is expected.

Q: What was your response for this presentation and how many people attended?
It was extremely positive with lots of interaction. There was a lot of interest in this topic and approximately 150 people attended the presentation.

Q: Tell us a specific scenario where your knowledge & experience helped a customer to get a permit for their greenhouse project?
Of course. Dave Wilson Nursery in Stanislaus County is a prime example.     We located and connected them with a permit acquisition specialist–Brett Russell, of Interstate Electric. Then, we conducted a team meeting with the customer to develop a proposal.  We crafted the proposal very carefully, making sure we answered all the potential questions and addressed areas that may cause concern.  We made sure to include input from people at work on every aspect of the project. The team has years of experience interfacing with building officials which proved to be very important as the process unfolded.  The team developed the specs and the documents required to submit the permit package and, with perseverance, it went through with flying colors. By working with us in conjunction with Brett Russell, who knew the process in his county, our customer was successful in accomplishing their goal of receiving a permit. The time and energy they put in to prepare their permit package really paid off in the end.

By Edmund Attanasio, May 24, 2016

Agra Tech and Phoenix IRC Work Together to Create Community Farm

North Slope greenhouse

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic well being, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, to reclaim control of their future and to strengthen their communities. Recently, Agra Tech, a leading manufacturer of commercial greenhouses, played an integral role in helping IRC in Phoenix, AZ to establish a small greenhouse in conjunction with their New Roots Program.

The New Roots Program is designed to help refugee farming families achieve food security, self-sufficiency and economic empowerment through their agricultural businesses. To achieve these, the IRC provides the following services to help new Arizonan farmers/ranchers: Agricultural education and business training; Agricultural business development; and Community agricultural partnerships.

koffi_newrootsWith three community gardens, aquaponics, and more than 100 participants gardening, the IRC in Phoenix provides training for new producers at multiple farmers markets around town and currently has program participants selling at four different farmers’ markets, three popup stands, and multiple retail locations. By also providing a John Deere tractor, implements, hand tools, processing supplies, and marketing supplies, the farmers involved are set up for success. Partners for the program include Rotary Club, Vitalyst Health Foundation, City of Phoenix, Redemption Church, Hickman’s Eggs, United Dairymen of Arizona.

By playing an active role in affecting city policy surrounding community gardens and farmers’ markets, the New Roots Program has changed the way people in low income areas attain food in Phoenix. Tristan Dunton, 25, is the Community Garden and Hydroponics Coordination and part of the New Roots Farm Program. We sat down with Dunton recently to discuss his most recent project and how Agra Tech, Inc. in Pittsburg, CA helped to make it all happen.

Q: Tell us about the genesis of your project for IRC Phoenix.
A: The project started in 2014 with the support of the Steele Foundation, and in the process we were involved in changing policy. Back in 2012, the city in conjunction with some people at IRC Phoenix developed the Community Garden Policy that allows us to build anything under 200square feet without electricity hookups and without a permit. Obviously, anything larger or, requiring an electrical hookup, requires a permit. Before we began this project, we had to get the language of the policy clarified, because without it we were going to have difficulty getting our greenhouse going–which we did.

Q: Tell us the genesis of your current project and how it came to fruition?
A: Right after getting hired by the IRC Phoenix, we signed a 10-year lease at a one-acre lot on 1616 Camelback Road. According to the City of Phoenix, any structure more than 200 square feet requires a permit. So, we needed to navigate through the process and make this happen without getting seriously delayed. We were moving a little faster than the City, so that’s where we encountered some problems. Long story short, we got our permit in January of this year, so I started working with local engineers to make it happen. It was pretty amazing. We started construction earlier this year and we just finished about a month ago.

Q: You ran into some obstacles along the way. Can you describe them?
A: Yes, it was definitely a learning process and I had to be a quick study on city politics as a result. First, I didn’t know how to formalize the language to represent the project appropriately. I had to define what I was building, which is a community garden greenhouse. When I called it a “teaching greenhouse” I think the city started looking at us as a school, which we are not. So, there was a period of time there where it looked daunting. But, with the help of a civil engineer, a local architect and a contractor–we eventually got it done.

Q: How is your community garden greenhouse doing currently?
A: It’s been great! The Agra Tech greenhouse looks beautiful and we already have so many people involved in the project. People in this area get limited access to fresh food and this project is going to change that. We’re receiving a ton of support from the community and people are volunteering right and left.


Q: What are you growing?
A: Tomatoes, peppers and lettuce will be our main cash crops, but we will also be growing things like celery, turnip greens, Swiss chard and other items like that. The real important thing about our system is that we will be able to grow food year-round. We also plan to eventually raise tilapia here as well. The grant that we received for this project was to build a greenhouse and by the third year of funding we have to be 100% sustainable. We’re technically on our second year, so we have much to do.

Q: What was Agra Tech’s role in helping you with this project?
A: They were terrific. I guess I pretty much dealt with everyone there at Agra Tech at some point. Everyone was super friendly and really helpful. Jim Bergantz was a great proprietor on this project and he got back to us promptly every time. Anita Pound and James Roberts, their technical guy, was exceptional. They have so much knowledge and they’ve been doing this for so long that that working with them was a no-brainer.

Q: What do you think the future of 1616 Camelback Road will be like?
A: If we can grow food to feed the people of Phoenix and on top of that, sell much of it to make enough money for us to be sustainable, that will be very satisfying, to say the least. Now that we have a great greenhouse and are finally here growing food, I think we’ll achieve some impressive things here rather quickly.

Aquaponics tank
Aquaponics tank

Ed Attanasio Written by Edmund Attanasio