Boy dreams of farming
For Eric Aguilar, the first seed of the farming dream started with a rather far-fetched idea about a high-tech spherical hydroponic farm. He was attracted to the way that hydroponics used science to achieve the goals of farming in more dynamic ways. Fortunately, the impractical part of that dream (the part with the multi-million dollar price tag) was sifted away, and the love for a science-driven farm remained.
It grew a little over time, but mostly stayed in the back of Eric's mind as he worked another job - a fencing company that he built himself. While entrepreneurship is rewarding, Eric found that fencing wasn't his passion.
Girl dreams of farming
For Diane Moeller, the desire to farm started as a love for agriculture in her early years.
She was fascinated by the interaction of agriculture and the environment, and eventually got a degree in environmental engineering.
But her passion for having an impact on environmental health wasn't fully met in the jobs she got after college.
She received training in designing water treatment systems and started working (and still does) in restoration and design.
“My degree is in environmental engineering, and I went into that field thinking I would make a difference from an environmental standpoint. And I learned that I’m basically just cleaning up other people’s messes. And I wanted to do something more proactive and less retroactive.”
Over time, that feeling grew.
Boy and girl build farm together
So what do Eric and Diane have in common? Other than a marriage license, Eric and Diane share a determination to do something bigger with their goals. That determination gained momentum almost as soon as the couple married.
It was on their honeymoon in 2015 that the couple saw a vertical farm that caught their attention. It was the football-field sized Farm Wall on the US Pavilion at the World Fair in Milan. The sight of the farm inspired the couple to get real about their dreams to farm.
They started watching YouTube videos on vertical farming while on their honeymoon.
Eventually, the couple found a system - the ZipFarm - that offered them what they needed to get started. It came with a team to help them plan the facility, clear data to support financial projections, and it grew crops with marketing strengths. The couple's plans to start a farm started taking shape in the form of an indoor vertical farm.
They continued to research, conducting a feasibility study to see if their farm could make money. As they looked into pricing, checked out supply at different markets throughout the seasons, and studied restaurant menus to see what they could grow, they saw gaps that they could fill.
The couple realized that they had the advantages of low competition, high quality, and consistent production no matter the season.
“We realized, ‘you know what? If I go to a farmers market where they don’t sell anything that we’re selling, that could give people and incentive to go back and come to us,’ " said Eric. "Because at that point you’re selling all this stuff even in the winter.”
On top of the market potential, Eric and Diane saw an opportunity in a relatively undeveloped industry. "There's room for growth," says Diane. She's right; the markets for produce grown vertically, hydroponically, and sustainably (all possible with indoor ag) and the tech making indoor farms affordable and efficient are evolving quickly. Eric and Diane are going to take advantage of that.
The science behind running a farm and the bigger picture of an exciting industry fulfills Eric's desire to be a part of something bigger. The ability to use good practices from the start is the proactive solution that Diane has looked for the past years.
Their ZipFarm - named Off the Root Hydroponics - is now installed in a warehouse in their hometown of Gurnee, Illinois. Their seedlings are ready for transplant, and soon the couple will be growing produce for their local markets.
They'll start with the markets that they've researched thoroughly, and hope to offer custom crops to local communities soon.
“There’s a high Irish population, so we were thinking about growing cabbage for Saint Patrick's Day. And there’s a large Latino population," says Diane.
Eric points out that cultural foods like his Grandmother's homemade salsas, though delicious, could be so much more flavorful if quality ingredients were available.
What's next for Off the Root Hydroponics? Eric and Diane are enthusiastically starting to grow and look forward to a job that they enjoy and the opportunity to do something that they know is good for the world.
We look forward to seeing this farm grow! Stay tuned for more updates.
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