New Agtivist: Gene Fredericks is thinking inside the city’s big box
(Bart Nagel Photography)
A. Compared to greenhouses, Big Green Boxes have several advantages. These warehouses are already designed to keep out some of the heat and the cold. That makes it easier for us to control and maintain the optimal temperatures, humidity, and airflow.
Our goal is to be as carbon-neutral as possible. We’ll be using daylighting techniques to capture the sunlight, and we’ll use a lot of LED lighting, which is a bit pricy but is very inexpensive to operate, and pays for itself in energy savings within a year or so. We’ll augment these with other higher-intensity lights to add to the overall color spectrum and provide some desirable heat. To power the growing we’ll use a range of alternate power sources like solar, wind, and other energy-saving techniques.
We plan to use rain catchers for water collection and composting to generate a bit of heat and warmth. We expect that the efficiencies will increase as we learn more about how to be wiser with our energy use and as the solar, wind, and other industrial techniques used in this process progress.
Ten years ago, Big Green Boxes was not economically or technologically feasible. Now it is. And, as the price of the equipment goes down, the price of oil and water go up it becomes more and more desirable. I know we are creating a somewhat artificial growing environment, and I don’t ever expect that we’ll replace outdoor seasonal growing, that’s not our intention. But in the dead of winter and height of summer we can offer an alternative to sending fresh produce on a 1,500-mile pilgrimage from the fields to the table. Which has to be a good thing!
Q. There are several aquaponics startups already in operation, many of them inspired by Will Allen’s Growing Power farm in Milwaukee: Sweet Water Organic, also in Milwaukee, which is up and running; and the startups Cityscape Farms, which Todd Woody wrote about for Grist, and Sky Vegetables, which is building an aquaponics farm on a roof in Massachusetts. Why do you deserve investors’ money more?
A. Well, Sweet Water is a 501(c)3 nonprofit business. We are a for-profit business. As for the others, I think their model of putting greenhouses on rooftops or using vacant lots still leaves them open to all the issues of weather — heating and cooling during harsh hot and cold seasons. I like our business model better; I think we can scale more efficiently and reliably. But I wish them all good fortune since I feel we’re all helping to change the current food chain model — which seems to me to be in need of change, and lots of it.
Q. Why not just take over a defunct mall and grow enough crops for the whole West Coast?
A. I don’t want to feed more than a certain area because I want the greens to be harvested and eaten the same day within a community. And as we’re seeing with the eggs, concentration can be a bad idea. I’d rather build BGB on the hub-and-spoke model in lots of communities.
Q. How far along are you in terms of funding? When can we try some samples?
A. BGB has some seed funding, and we are continuing to raise more. We’ll need a few million dollars by the time we’re at full scale, but we don’t need it all to start. The leafy greens, baby and micro-greens we’ll harvest grow quickly, so we can be generating revenue long before we are at full-scale capacity. We can be up and running with just a few hundred thousand and quickly profitable after we’re at our optimal yield.
We already have a number of people excited about what we can produce, and we plan to create a “taste center” so we can invite our customers — food brokers and their clients — to come and taste a variety of produce on any given day. We have a location picked out for the first BGB, but don’t need the full space yet. Our goal is to start with the taste center, and get more funding to grow out our yield till we are at full scale.
Q. Have you learned any lessons from your previous ventures that have come in handy with Big Green Boxes?
A. It’s all about getting it going. I’ve had to simplify the concept somewhat. But I know sometimes you have to jettison some ideas from the vision in order to have the idea take off. If you’re successful, you can add those visionary parts back in. There will be an educational component from the start, but I hope at some future point we can add more complementary local businesses, create more of a produce mall, and also install raised beds in those big useless parking lots for a community garden. But first we need to be up and running and generating revenue!
Q. To whom do you look for inspiration?
A. A whole lot of people — Ernest Shackleton, Nelson Mandela for their perseverance; Buckminster Fuller and Da Vinci for their ‘out of the box’ ideas; Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin for taking on some big, game-changing challenges. My kids inspire me, just because I’m so proud of them.
Q. Company drops by unexpectedly around dinnertime. What do you do?
A. Depends on the company and what’s in the house. If they’re good friends we can always get creative. I lived in New Orleans and it’s amazing what you can put together with very little. Also, living in the Bay Area, we’re really lucky that we have so many options for great local restaurants and food sources. Plus, once we have a BGB nearby, I can get some fresh locally grown produce anytime!
More stories in this series:
Urban agriculture is a movement in transition. Agriculture has a vital role to play in cities, but it must be done in a way that keeps the urban fabric intact.
Getting fresh, healthy food into low-income urban areas known as “food deserts” isn’t as simple as it appears. For example, should food-justice advocates be celebrating when Walmart is the one bringing an oasis of fresh groceries to these deserts?
Philly’s homegrown ag movement isn’t just about getting more local produce into farmers markets. It’s focused on farming as a source of jobs and skills for city residents as well as a means to provide them affordable, healthy food.
There’s a new kind of farmer in town. Colin McCrate is using his agricultural know-how to convert sprawling urban yards into edible bounty.
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