Tag Archives: Vegetable production

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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Brightwater Farms Doubles Capacity with New ATI Greenhouse

Brightwater Farms, LLC is in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, a hydroponic farm that uses two greenhouses made by Agra Tech, Inc. of Pittsburg, CA. They recently purchased their second structure from ATI to accommodate more sales and enable them to achieve better and bigger things.

Owned and operated by two brothers, Andrew and Robert Toews, the business began in 2014 and now Brightwater Farms is a flourishing farm that grows specialty lettuces, including Oak Leaf, Butter Leaf, Watercress and Frisee. USDA GAP certified and a member of Colorado Proud, Brightwater Farms is a highly-respected green company that believes in sustainability and helping the planet in everything it does.

A produce wholesaler in Denver buys 80% of all the crops grown at Brightwater Farms, with the remainder going to local restaurants and grocery stores. The business is strong and sales are robust, according to Co-Owner Andrew Toews. “Right now, our demand outweighs our capacity, even after doubling the operation after acquiring the second greenhouse from Agra Tech,” he said. “We sell our products alive, which means the roots are still attached. Some consumers put them in water and that way they stay fresher right up until consumption.”

Brightwater Farms knows that the quality of their crops has to always be spot-on if the business will continue to be successful, Andrew Toews explained. “We need these lettuces to be uniform and they have to look good, so that we can keep our customers and the consumers happy. We always make certain that everything is perfect before it leaves here and that’s why we make quality control a priority.”

By acquiring the additional Agra Tech greenhouse, Brightwater Farms was able to add 8,640 sq. ft. to its initial 10,400 sq. ft. greenhouse, also purchased from Agra Tech. The structure also includes a head house, offices and bathrooms, etc. which makes it 100% enclosed, so that everything can be performed on-site and protected by the weather.

Toews is delighted with his expanded greenhouse and how it has helped his business. “The greenhouse does everything we need,” he said. “We are now able to produce 750 cases per crop every week, which is keeping us busy around here all the time. Crops we harvest today were planted six weeks ago, so we’re turning them quickly and like clockwork.”

Toews became initially aware of Agra Tech in 2014 when he met ATI Sales Rep Adam Pound at the annual ​Greenhouse ​Crop ​Production ​& ​Engineering ​Design ​Conference, presented by the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CEAC) and held at the university. “Adam made a very positive impression, so we decided to get a competing bid from Agra Tech, along with some other companies. After reviewing everything, we decided to go with Agra Tech and it was a great decision.”

With backgrounds in construction, the Toews brothers built both of their Agra Tech greenhouses themselves and are proud of the finished result. “Adam Pound told us that this is one of the best Agra Tech greenhouses he’s ever seen, which was satisfying,” Toews said. “Agra Tech provided us with a lot of useful information about how to assemble the structure and they’re very knowledgeable, so that was extremely helpful and allowed us to put together the best greenhouse we possibly could. We rely on our greenhouses to keep our production rolling and so we wanted to make sure that they were built correctly.”

Now with both greenhouses working well and helping Brightwater Farms to meet their production numbers, Toews is happy to be growing crops that are consumed by people throughout Colorado. “Collaborating with Agra Tech enabled us to double our business and if we had the space, we could double the production again, because the demand is there. People want our lettuces and that is surely satisfying.”

Written by Ed Attanasio
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