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Agra Tech Donates Solar Light Greenhouse to Sustainable Farm in Its Own Backyard

With a focus on reclaiming water, growing healthy food for schools and non-profit organizations, creating green jobs and reducing global warming in the Bay Area, the Coco San Sustainable Farms collaboration between the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District in Martinez, CA and AgLantis TM, a non-profit organization that has a triple bottom line – social, economic and environmental. A business model that provides healthy, fresh and sustainably produced local food and education for the community, this cutting-edge project is the first of its type in the entire country and a true groundbreaking enterprise in many ways.

With a 144’ X 42’ top-of-the-line Solar Light greenhouse donated by Agra Tech in Pittsburg, CA, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of commercial greenhouses, the CoCo San Sustainable Farm will soon be growing produce on its 14.8 acres of public buffer land, using reclaimed, agricultural-grade water that would otherwise be discharged into the bay.

Carolyn Phinney is a retired UC Berkeley Ph.D. behavioral scientist, is the President of AgLantis and Executive Director of the CoCo San Sustainable Farm and the driving force behind this innovative project. She has already received an outstanding activist award for her work. “We’ll be growing fresh produce very soon using sustainable methods for local schools, the Contra Costa County Food Bank and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture boxes),” Phinney explained.“This year we will have a high-tech hydroponics greenhouse donated by Agra Tech, Inc, in operation, which will managed by our expert staff and volunteers.”

The farm will also be a school, according to Phinney. “One of our goals is to provide useful, hands-on science and engineering classes concerning soil science, water science, permaculture, sustainable organic agriculture, integrated-pest-management, low water use gardening and hydroponic greenhouse management. Every aspect of science touches a farm such as physics, soil science, hydrology, meteorology, and nutrition.  We are working with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, a Teacher of the Year, the Community College Board, Diablo Valley and Los Medanos Community Colleges, JFKU and an expert who created internships for NASA to integrate the farm into school curricula.”

Food for local schools is a major priority for the CoCo San Sustainable Farm, Phinney said. “It costs about a dollar a day to feed a child a salad and most schools can’t afford that. The Contra Costa Food Bank cannot get a large supply of salad vegetables because they are highly perishable and only available locally from small backyard gardening. We will be providing low-cost sustainably grown produce for schools, the Contra Costa/Solano Food Bank and the community.”

Reclaiming water during one of California’s worst droughts of all time is a big deal and an integral part of the sustainability of its farm. Nearly 1 trillion gallons of reclaimed water are discharged into the greater San Francisco Bay waterways each year, according to the project’s web site salads4schools.org.  “UC Davis estimated the water shortfall in California’s Central Valley was 2.1 trillion gallons this past year and we dumped about half that much in the Bay Area alone,” Phinney said. “This water is high in nitrogen and phosphorus which is bad for the Bay, but great for agriculture, thereby providing us with free fertilizer. All it requires is one more treatment to make it ideal for agriculture, so why not take this water and use it to grow food, as opposed to letting it go into the Bay?” Furthermore, there are thousands of acres of public buffer land near the recycled water sources in this county alone, which can be used to grow produce and reduce nutritional poverty in our community.

Most people probably don’t realize that growing food contributes considerably to global warming, Phinney explained. “It makes up 25% of all global warming, because the state pumps water to farmers in the Central Valley using much electricity to do so. Then, we truck our produce to cities, using much gas to do so. The fertilizers that nonorganic farming uses also contribute to global warming. By using recycled water high in natural fertilizer and the public buffer land surrounding the water reclamation facilities and eating the produce locally, we’re nearly eliminated most of the carbon footprint of farming at the CoCo San Sustainable Farm.”

The farm will also be an incubator for green jobs, Phinney said. “We will partner with other local businesses to showcase their products and teach about jobs that are directly related to these industries. We’re in a great position to train people in high-tech organic agricultural methods in our new greenhouse, donated by Agra Tech, Inc., we can teach greenhouse growing as well, which is exciting. Hydroponics greenhouse growing can produce as much as 40 times the produce with 10% of the water. We believe hydroponics greenhouse growing right in the center of urban areas using recycled water and land nearby is the future of agriculture.”

Safe Haven Heirloom Farms Grows and Helps Young Farmers to Blossom

Community Supported Agriculture

Community Supported Agriculture

Learning in an Agra Tech greenhouse

Learning important life skills in an Agra Tech greenhouse

By focusing on providing top quality heirloom, non-hybrid produce, Safe Haven Heirloom Farms in Orosi, CA grows a wide range of vegetables, including heirloom tomatoes, corn, peppers, squash and more. They also produce heirloom seeds, raise organic beef and chicken and are presently experimenting with raising tilapia at their farm. Currently, Safe Haven Heirloom Farms uses greenhouses donated by Agra Tech, Inc., one of the world’s leading manufacturers of commercial greenhouses and greenhouse growing systems. Agra Tech has stepped up to help this farm and guided them through the process of growing produce in soil bags using ATI greenhouses.

Led by Bryan and Karla Barnes, Safe Haven Heirloom Farms grows everything naturally and sustainably, but maybe one of the most important things they do is teach and mentor students through Growing with Torah, a program in which they have dramatically impacted the lives of young people in this agricultural training school that starts with the beginning of the growing season in March, and ends in the fall with the Feast of Tabernacles Harvest Festival. In this program, students plant, grow, and harvest produce for weekly boxes of high quality, non-GMO, heirloom produce, that are then distributed to those in California who purchase shares.

Bryan Barnes loves being an heirloom farmer, but his life’s mission and calling is much more than that. “Life on the farm is full of opportunity to learn and teach important life skills–like hard work, dedication to detail, patience, tenacity and humility and a work ethic—they’re all important. It has been said that if you can be a farmer you can do anything. At Growing with Torah, we are all about getting back to our roots, and it is a rewarding experience to see this come to life in our student volunteers as they get their hands dirty and get involved in Growing in Torah.”

Safe Haven Heirloom Farms is a CSA farm, which means it practices Community Supported Agriculture. In this business model, the community supports small farmers and enables them to grow. “In another sense people become partners with their farmer, “Barnes said. “That way the community can rest assured that they’ll always receive, quality fresh produce that has been grown in a way they want it grown. In our country today, extremely large farms are the norm and ‘production’ type of farming is the standard. This also includes GMO and hybrid seeds that companies like Monsanto are now patenting. Now more than ever, small farmers are growing a large variety of produce and that’s why people who believe in this way of growing should partner with us.”

Since 2011, Barnes has been attending the annual World Ag Expo and each year Agra Tech has given its demonstration greenhouse to Safe Haven Heirloom Farms for free. The farm grows 30-40% of its produce in its Agra Tech greenhouses, using one 20’ x 60’ greenhouse; another 20’ x 100’ greenhouse and their newly-added 25’ x 35’ Agra Tech Thermolator greenhouse.

“Agra Tech’s Jim Bergantz and the rest of the professionals at ATI have been incredible to donate these greenhouses to us,” Barnes explained. “They’ve quickly become a big part of what we’re doing here at Safe Haven Heirloom Farms and without them and their generosity, we could not be doing what we’re doing now. ATI is helping us to make our farm and our program strong and that’s why it’s growing in so many ways. Jim has been very encouraging and very supportive. He took a look at our farm and offered us some very valuable advice. But importantly, he’s just been here when we need him. Our relationship with Agra Tech has been a miracle and an amazing experience. It’s a great company and their people are exceptional.”DSCN3400

In this program, students plant, grow, and harvest produce for weekly boxes of high quality, non-GMO, heirloom produce, that are then distributed to those in California who purchase shares.

In this program, students plant, grow, and harvest produce for weekly boxes of high quality, non-GMO, heirloom produce, that are then distributed to those in California who purchase shares.

John Pound Interview, Part II

John Pound owner Agra Tech

John Pound owner Agra Tech

John Pound is the Owner and Founder of Agra Tech, one of the world’s leading commercial greenhouse manufacturers, with its headquarters in Pittsburg, CA. This interview is Part #2. Click to read Part 1.

Q: What are the biggest changes in the commercial greenhouse industry since you began?

JP: There have been multiple changes from when I started, but the biggest thing that comes to my mind is the way the market has evolved. When I started in this business forty years ago, the biggest users of our products were the cut flower companies. At that time, we did large greenhouse projects for rose and carnation growers. The work was very seasonal and revolved around holidays like Easter, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. So it was a fairly predictable market. At the end of the season, the growers knew if they had made enough money to invest in another greenhouse. They would call us and say “We need another greenhouse and we need to get it done in time to have flowers to sell for Christmas”, for example. It was pretty straightforward with very simple greenhouses.

That market eventually fell apart when the US signed a free trade agreement with Columbia, who now supplies over 80% of our cut flowers. They can produce a cut flower in Colombia and air freight it to the US cheaper than a local company can grow it. So that market literally went south.

Then the market started to focus on house plants, or Interior Landscaping. Ferns, orchids, and other types of house plants became popular so there was a lot of business in that market for us during that time. These were mostly small family businesses just like us. At the same time, the need for bedding plants for landscaping was also on the increase.

Today, our business is focusing more and more on agriculture, including seed companies and transplant growers. We are working with big corporations such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Dow and that has been a real change for our company.

The newest development in the agricultural market is food production for the local community. There is a cultural shift to buying local foods in response to concerns about the environment, the economy, and health. Greenhouses providing a controlled environment are the answer to growing produce year around. Smaller growers are producing tomatoes, vine crops, lettuces and leafy greens for restaurants and farmers markets. We started Agra Tech working with family businesses and we’re happy to be back working with this type of grower again.

Q: Agra Tech is a family business. Please mention the names and positions of all your family members that work for Agra Tech, with a brief description of their backgrounds, etc.

JP: Anita Pound my sister is our greenhouse engineer and also the Chief Operations Officer. She’s the brains of the outfit if you get right down to it. She’s been here 40 years and has learned the business from ground zero. Anita has done it all–she can weld, fabricate and she’s done installation—everything to build a greenhouse. She used to be out on the road as a foreman and she knows this business inside out. Anita is married to Craig Miskel and he has been our Production Manager for 38 years.

John Pound and his son, Adam.
John Pound and his son, Adam.

Adam Pound, my son, is in sales and he’s been with us for seven years. He handles our Monsanto account, which he earned after working here for a few months. So he’s grown the Monsanto account and other accounts and done an excellent job for us.

Eloise Pound my wife works as our Controller, handling the legal end of the business. She does contracts; handles personnel issues, financing, insurance, and much more. She worked in banking before joining us and she’s extremely detail-oriented. Eloise and I met while we were both students at U.C. Davis and we’ve been married for 40 years.

My younger brother Ray Pound worked for us for a number years and then he decided he wanted to go out on his own. He was doing all our construction as an Agra Tech employee, so we sold him the construction division of Agra Tech and it works out very well. His company is called Ag-Con located in San Jose, CA. He does most of the local construction for us. Ag-Con.

I also want to mention some other people, including Jim Bergantz one of our sales engineers, who is very good. He came from the industry and he’s an important member of our team here at Agra Tech. There’s also Tonya Pitcher in the office doing inside sales and James Roberts who does the lion’s share of our customer service. When customers call with tech support questions, James Roberts fields them. He’s very knowledgeable having worked for here for more than 17 years.

John and Ray Pound on site visit

John Pound and Ray Pound of Ag Con on a site visit

Q: Please mention some of your leading strategic partners and how you work with them?

JP: In addition to Ag-Con, we’ve been working with American Hydro for 15-20 years. They specialize in the actual growing of the plant material through hydroponics and they’ve sold some of our greenhouses. We sometimes make parts for them and it’s been a great relationship.

We’ve also been working with our Engineer, Rob Shaffer, the owner of Shaffer Engineering for several years. All the structural engineering, building permits and engineering-related issues are handled by Rob’s company. We show him the design and then he makes sure that it meets the actual building codes. That way, it’s done right and to code. We are glad to be partnering with his company.

Q: What does the future hold for Agra Tech?

JP: We feel we are just at the very beginning of greenhouses being a major factor in agriculture, for both large and small scale growers. This is fueled by the need to use fewer pesticides, conserve water, and to grow more crops on less land. Seed research companies are continuing to work toward developing plants that can produce more with less water, fewer pesticides, and for a variety of climates. More and more small growers are starting up to respond to local markets. We are fortunate that we saw this coming and are already experienced in the AG market.

The second generation of Pounds my son, Adam and his wife, Leslie are learning the business so they will be ready to take over and run Agra Tech in the future. Adam is involved in cutting edge uses for greenhouses to help feed more people and even aid in reducing world hunger. It is an exciting time to be in the greenhouse manufacturing business.

Q: If someone is thinking about entering this industry, what would you tell them and what is the best way for them to learn more about greenhouse growing?

JP: The first thing I would tell them is to know your market. Find out what people in your area need and grow those things. Once you have determined what your market is, learn everything you can about it, because if you can grow food or plants that people need, you can succeed. You can grow the most wonderful plants but if there is no market for them, you can’t make a profit. It’s common sense. Knowing your market is key, and some growers lose sight of that.

Written by Ed Attanasio