Suncrest USA Shows the Way to a Better Day for Greenhouse Farmers: By Ed Attanasio

James Day, Suncrest USA in OKU's Solar Light Greenhouse

James Day, Suncrest USA in OKU’s Solar Light Greenhouse

By licensing its cutting-edge Deep Water Culture (DWC) hydroponic technology to greenhouse growers throughout the Western U.S., Suncrest® USA is changing the way lettuce is being grown on the planet. By making Agra Tech, Inc. of Pittsburg, CA its go-to source for greenhouses and accessories, Suncrest is at the cutting-edge of greenhouse technology and hydroponics, one of the fastest growing industries in the world today.

Founded in January, 2012 by James Day, a former Silicon Valley advertising and marketing guru, the story of Suncrest began several years before in Denton, Texas. It all started back in 1984, when Jim’s brother Robert Day bought a greenhouse operation called Melotex, which had been a hydroponic tomato operation starting back in the 1970’s. Rob Day converted the business into a very successful wholesale bedding plant operation that he named Suncrest Growers.

For more than two decades, Suncrest Growers was well-known for growing the finest bedding plants in the Southwest. Then the “Great Recession” hit and Suncrest Growers, along with one-fourth of all the flower growers in this country, went out of business. As an investor and partner in his brother’s business, Jim Day took over the company’s assets and began figuring out a way to change the business model and to leverage the use of the Suncrest brand.

By combining his brother Rob’s greenhouse growing expertise and his own background in marketing and technology, Jim began focusing on how to grow food more efficiently, year-round in greenhouses. As his research into hydroponic technologies and markets gained momentum, he realized that he was onto something potentially huge.

Deep Water Culture in Solar Light Greenhouse at OKU Nursery

During the research stage, Jim discovered that growing leafy-greens in Deep Water Culture (DWC) for local niche markets was going to be a business model he wanted to pursue. He took the basic concepts that he had learned from Cornell University’s Horticultural Department and further developed them into a series of patentable ideas and trade secrets that would improve the efficiency and performance of DWC systems.

Deep Water Culture: Lettuce being grown in AgraTech Solar Light greenhouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turning crops faster with DWC means better production and by using less water it just makes better sense than in-ground growing. “We can turn the crops 11-13 times a year with our system while in the ground they can only do two or three. We can produce 25 heads per square foot while less than ½ of a head in the ground. In addition, when compared to field-grown lettuce, they use 16-38 gallons of water to grow one head of lettuce, while our hydroponically grown lettuce needs only one gallon of water. In our DWC hydroponic tanks, we start with drinking water and circulate the water each day through a series of mechanical filters and UV sterilizers to keep the growing water extremely safe. It is tested regularly for pathogens and unwanted elements like iron and arsenic. Another factor is that the plants are not watered from above, so the leaves always stay very clean and the roots are the only connection with the tank water.”

In late 2011, Jim shared his business vision with the renowned Silicon Valley graphic designer, angel investor and friend, Lawrence Bender. In January of 2012, with initial seed funding provided by Larry, Jim re-booted Suncrest as a DWC hydroponic technology company to grow Bibb, Red Romaine, Red Oak and Little Gem lettuce for local markets and high-end restaurants. All of his research was finally paying off as Suncrest entered a new exciting chapter.

One of the first moves he made was hiring Dr. Gordon Snyder, a former classmate who had earned his Ph.D. in water science, and had worked for NASA, to join his team as a co-founder. Between their shared knowledge of chemistry and technology, this formidable team continued its skills and experience to develop their unique system.

In 2013, Suncrest’s very first licensed deal was signed with a small flower grower on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle — Plum Hill, LLC. Their greenhouses were retrofitted with Suncrest’s DWC hydroponic systems and by 2014; lettuce was being sold to local chefs and retail consumers who validated the company’s products. Suncrest’s greenhouse growers simply grow the crops and Suncrest does the rest.

By the end of 2014, Suncrest had signed its second licensing deal in the San Francisco market with a major cut-flower operation — Oku, Inc. A year later, 55,000 square feet of greenhouses in Pescadero began producing lettuce under the name Pescadero Growers. Currently, Suncrest has two greenhouse operations, one in Seattle and the other in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Steve and James OKU

Steve Oku, the owner of Pescadero Growers is happy that he is working with Suncrest USA. “Our flower market started shrinking, so we decided to find something else to grow and that’s when we met Jim Day,” Oku said. “We were already thinking about lettuce and going with hydroponics and that’s when we decided to start growing lettuce using Suncrest USA’s Deep Water Culture system. We have a ten acre greenhouse here, but we’re currently using only one acre right now for lettuce. Hopefully, we will add more as we expand our operation in the future.

“Greenhouse growing is safe, because there is a very minimal risk of E-coli since there are no animals inside the greenhouse and we have complete control of the process and the product. We met and talked with most of the major greenhouse manufacturers in the country during our development stage and we chose to partner with Agra Tech, because they believe in our approach of local growing using Deep Water Culture,” Jim said. “They have been very supportive of our business model, because it helps the grower, but just as importantly, they make an outstanding greenhouse that can be optimized for indoor produce.”

Agra Tech is the only greenhouse supplier that Suncrest uses for a wide range of reasons. Agra Tech has developed some highly innovative greenhouse cooling systems that do a great job at cooling the greenhouse and for us, they are what we call a ‘best of breed” supplier.

OKU Nursery, Pescadero, CA

“The team at Agra Tech–from their customer service people all the way to their engineers–possess a lot of experience and knowledge about every aspect of the greenhouse growing industry and that is why they are our exclusive provider of greenhouses,” Jim said. Agra Tech is very active all over the country, helping greenhouse farmers and attending all of the industry conferences and trade shows that happen every year. We have worked closely with the Pound Family and Jim Bergantz and I can say without hesitation that they are among the best in the industry.”

Written by Ed Attanasio
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Oceanside Unified School District Gets Into Greenhouse Growing

Students in Agra Tech Solar Light 24 greenhouse

Director of Community Engagement and Innovation Vicki Gravlin works for the Oceanside Unified School District that oversees 23 schools. She is in her 27th year as a teacher and administrator and a former principal of Palmquist Elementary.

Gravlin has played a pivotal role in getting the school its greenhouse and having it up and running, as well as developing the curriculum surrounding it. We recently interviewed Vicki about this long-term project, its mission and how Agra Tech helped the district to make it all happen.

Q: How did this greenhouse project start?

A: Before I arrived, the previous principal at Palmquist Elementary was Phyllis Morgan, and she was very interested in STEM Education (STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach) as well as sustainable food sources and that’s when she made the connection with Pierre Sleiman at Go Green Agriculture in Encinitas, CA. They started discussing the idea of what it would be like to have a student-run greenhouse. When I became the principal, Palmquist already had a half-acre in-ground farm and it was in disarray and needed some love. So, we updated the in-ground farming component and started researching about having our own greenhouse on-site and it kind of went from there. Since last fall, the greenhouse has been up and running at Palmquist and so many great things have happened since then.

Agra Tech Solar Light 24 greenhouse under consruction

Q: You had a lot of people helping you with this greenhouse project, correct?

A: Absolutely. Pierre at Go Green guided us through the process initially, to figure out the specs of the greenhouse and determining all of the additional equipment we were going to need. He has mentored us through the entire process and has been amazing.

Then, we began working with Jim Bergantz at Agra Tech and he was super and incredibly helpful throughout the entire process. He made sure to let us know what we were getting involved in (laughs) and indeed we have gone through some trials and tribulations along the way. But by accessing the knowledge and experience of Agra Tech and Jim Bergantz, we were able to avoid obstacles and problems that we may have encountered otherwise.

Q: Tell us about the structure itself and what types of crops are you growing?

A: The structure is 24 ft. by 48 ft. with 16 hydroponic tables that are all currently in use. The students are always looking for their own ways to configure hydroponic systems. They work in close conjunction with our resident farmer/teacher Mark Wagner, who organizes and operates the programs on three different school sites. The grades that are involved in these programs are predominantly third through fifth, although all of the children have access to both the greenhouse and our in-ground farms.

The students grow primarily leafy greens, including kale, spinach, red leaf lettuce, butter lettuce and other things such as strawberries. They do all of the work from monitoring the Ph levels of the water to all of the seeding and they touch literally every aspect of the growing process. We teach them how to get the produce out to the community, so they learn that aspect as well.

Q: Do you think the students will start eating healthier through their exposure to this on-site greenhouse and in-ground farming?

A: I think so, because we have already seen it. One day, several students were leaving the farm with a big head of red cabbage and they were eating it like candy. I walked by and they said, Mrs. Gravlin, do you want some, this cabbage is so good! Their hands were all red and they were munching away. So, we have learned that if they grow it, they will eat it. One parent said to me that my child would never eat these things at home, but if he grows them himself in the greenhouse, he will. Mr. Wagner did a food demonstration one day and made kale chips and the kids went crazy over them!

Q: How do you fund the programs?

A: Our produce is sold locally to restaurants and that’s how we maintain the program and keep the business going. Some of the restaurants come to us, but in many cases Mr. Wagner delivers it to their locations. The money we get is all funneled back into the greenhouse to buy equipment and supplies and it also helps out other two in-ground farms with the funds.

Q: What are the main benefits of your greenhouse to your school and your students?

A: It shows the students how food production works from seed to sales, empowers them to grow their own and helps them to understand about the nutritional value of the food they grow.

Finished Crop in Agra Tech Solar Light greenhouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

Article by Ed Attanasio

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Agra Tech and Lundberg Family Farms Create a One-of-a-Kind Greenhouse

Headhouse with Agra Tech greenhouse behind

By Ed Attanasio
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If you’ve ever purchased any organic rice or rice products at your local grocery store, there’s a very good chance that they were grown at Lundberg Family Farms in Richvale, CA. Today, Lundberg Family Farms is the United States’ leading producer of organic rice and rice products as third and fourth generation Lundberg family members are still carrying on the family heritage by using eco-positive farming methods to produce nutritious and healthy rice products while improving and protecting the environment for more generations to come. “Leave the land better than you found it,” Albert Lundberg told his sons, something they still believe and practice to this day at Lundberg Family Farms.

Eighty years ago, Albert and Frances Lundberg left their home in Nebraska to start a rice farm in Northern California’s fertile Sacramento Valley with their four sons. In the 1960’s, Eldon, Wendell, Harlan and Homer Lundberg saw the need to sell their products directly to the public, since it was being grown so differently from conventional rice. This gave consumers a choice in the rice they purchased and began the Lundberg Family Farms brand which now includes over 200 value-added products utilizing 17 different types of specialty rice, quinoa, beans and other whole grains.

Vice-President of Administration Jessica Lundberg first heard about Agra Tech back in 2013, when Lundberg Family Farms started thinking about replacing their greenhouses that had been serving them for many years. “We have a research nursery where we focus on our seed production, doing variety improvement and a wide range of organic material testing,” she said. “We were doing this work in two older greenhouses and started talking about replacing them, because the complexity of the work we were doing was increasing. We needed to upgrade, so we started looking around at the different types of greenhouses out there at places like UC Davis and Chico State University. In addition, we talked to other greenhouse growers, including the people at the California Cooperative Rice Research Foundation (aka The Rice Experiment Station), which is right up the road from us in Biggs, CA. They had just completed a greenhouse, so we visited them to take a look and we were pretty impressed by it.  The Foundation introduced us to Jim Bergantz at Agra Tech.”

Research inside Lundberg’s greenhouse. “Fully integrated & automated controls for all operational aspects; fan speeds, lighting, cooling system, shade curtains and includes a PC based program interface that provides for monitoring system performance and set up.”

After the initial introductions, the process of planning and laying out the greenhouse was the next step. “We had a list of needs and wants and Jim at Agra Tech got us a bid, so that we could get an idea of pricing,” Lundberg said. “Then, we put it into our business plan and it took about a full year until we were ready to take down the old greenhouses and apply for permits. We wanted something that was unconventional and Jim Bergantz’s advice was instrumental in making it happen for us.”

By using his extensive knowledge and experience in the commercial greenhouse industry, Jim Bergantz was able to help Lundberg Family Farms in several areas that saved them time and capital. “We were able to re-purpose a lot of our lighting, because it was only a year old”.

“Since we are growing predominantly rice in the greenhouse, we had to figure out the bench layout to hold fiberglass tanks of water; the lighting requirements; the type of screen material we needed for insect exclusion; the heating and cooling operations in the greenhouse and how we could create a dual purpose “wet room” from the space of the cooling pad room so that we could use it to do pre-planting preparations to soak our experimental and headrow seed lines in water,” Lundberg explained.

The actual construction for the Agra Tech 36’ x 96’ x 12’ Solar Light greenhouse was completed in May of 2016, which means that the farm has been using the greenhouse for more than a year now with great results, according to Manager of Engineering and Continuous Improvement Bradley Thomson, who played a pivotal role in the design and implementation of the greenhouse project at Lundberg Family Farms.

“The team at Agra Tech met the challenge and did a great job from start to finish,” Thomson said. “The completed house system is state of the art with fully integrated & automated controls for all operational aspects; fan speeds, lighting, cooling system, shade curtains and includes a PC based program interface that provides for monitoring system performance and set up. When small build issues arose, as they will, the Agra team stepped up and responded quickly to resolve the challenge. The new greenhouse represents a significant jump forward for Lundberg Family Farms not only in the overall system but also in the Head House space that was custom created for our own team. Agra Tech and Ag-Con worked in conjunction with our General Contractor to tie in a custom head house built by our general with a state of the art Green House, they did an excellent job.

The Agra Tech research greenhouse

View of the beautiful facility area from the front.

Written by Ed Attanasio
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