Local Entrepreneurs Bring Farming To The City With Urban Greens
Hydroponic farm sells crops to co-op, restaurants
IOWA CITY — From the outside, the house at 1135 E. College St. in Iowa City does not appear to be a farm.
In their basement, entrepreneurs Chad Treloar and Ted Myers grow arugula, sunflowers, sweet corn, cilantro, broccoli, lettuce and several other varieties of baby green vegetables.
The co-owners of Urban Greens sell their crops — many of them grown year-round in a hydroponic greenhouse system — to New Pioneer Food Co-op, local restaurants and at the Iowa City Farmers Market.
Baby greens are small, nutrient-packed produce that can be used as an alternative to lettuce on sandwiches and burgers, blended into smoothies or included in tossed salads. They are harvested about three weeks after they germinate, well before they become mature plants.
“We started in March of 2017 with a small room in the basement,” Myers recalled. ”The walls were lined and we did baby greens. Then we dug up the backyard and planted baby greens outdoors.”
Myers said the decision to grow baby greens year-round meant expanding the growing space in the basement by taking down a concrete block wall.
“We’ve had a few years’ experience with hydroponics and we designed a system — making about 1,000 mistakes along the way,” he said. “Now, we feel like we have it to where we are in full production, which is conveniently when we are able to work outdoors again.”
Myers and Treloar purchased their hydroponic growing channels and related supplies from FarmTek in Dyersville. They buy their seeds in 10-pound and 25-pound bags from Johnny’s Seeds in Maine and Mountain Valley Seed in Utah.
Hydroponic growing uses burlap as a growing medium, removing the need for soil and eliminating soil-borne diseases and pests, weeds and the use of herbicides and pesticides.
A water tank contains all the nutrients required to grow the baby greens. The channels are linked to the water tank with tubing, which carries the water to the plants and the channels drain the excess water.
LED lighting and fans are used to create and maintain the proper indoor growing environment. All the compost from the indoor production is saved and used in the outdoor plots of lettuce and other produce.
Urban Greens’ base baby greens product is what Myers and Treloar call their “superfood mix.”
“We take the baby greens of broccoli, kale, bok choy, cabbage, radish and some garnet mustard. We mix that all together to create something that has a lot of nutrients, color and a lot of flavor,” Myers said.
“We are adding more exotic greens to that, like arugula, for off shoots like a bold and spicy mix. There are a few different routes that we can take.”
Myers and Treloar are trying to minimize the time before harvest with different lighting and watering techniques to adjust the growing climate,
Treloar said the challenge with hydroponics system and the limited growing space is to make the process as efficient as possible.
“By removing soil from the equation, you are developing a growing environment where you can maximize the rates of growth, keep the products cleaner, and it requires less processing as you harvest it,” he said. “These types of efficiencies are important when it is reflected in pricing. We want to compete in pricing with massive farms that produce lettuce and greens in California that are shipped here.”
Myers said Urban Greens’ existing operation is a prototype that he and Treloar want to replicate to expand production. They plan to add a detached garage at the back of their location and use it to double their hydroponic year-round indoor production.
“Once we have maximized indoor and outdoor production on this property, we are looking to purchase another property with a house in Iowa City,” Myers said. “We want to acquire other properties around the center of the city close to delivery points so we can cut down on transportation costs.”
The additional properties also will enable Urban Greens to provide room and board to employees who will manage the household and also keep up with operations, Myers said.
“That house manager could also be the rental property manager,” he said. “Each property could generate revenue from the (growing) operation as well as the renters.”
Treloar said he and Myers believe the food system of the future will involve consumers having a direct relationship with the food that they eat day to day.
“It seems like the most realistic way to do that is incorporate growing in or near your living space,” he said. “That might involve space that is wasted like a storage room or your backyard, which you spend time mowing.
“It’s not just a business model, but a sustainable idea and a lifestyle model.”
Myers and Treloar hope to purchase similar properties in larger cities, adding more production and expanding Urban Greens’ employment and client base.