Q&A with Vertical Harvest Hydroponics

vertical harvest hydroponics

Alaska Startups recently had the opportunity to chat with Linda Janes, one of the founders of Vertical Harvest Hydroponics, an innovative startup in Alaska. Check out the full interview below:

Q: What is Vertical Harvest Hydroponics, in a nutshell?

vertical harvest hydroponics

Vertical Harvest Hydroponics (VHH) designs and builds Containerized Growing Systems (CGS), which allow produce to be grown on-site, virtually eliminating the expensive and lengthy supply chain.

CGS is a hydroponic growing system, housed inside a 40’ insulated shipping container and includes everything needed to grow fresh produce, giving our customers the flexibility of location.

Our system can be placed anywhere with power and potable water, providing you with easy access to the harvest. The CGS is Arctic ready and optimized for high yield, year round production. Produce is grown on-site, virtually eliminating the expensive and lengthy supply chain. In spite of its tiny footprint, a single CGS will supply your business with over 23,000 heads of greens per year.

No technical skills are required and anyone can become a local producer with minimal effort. Customers can chose to grow from a variety of leafy greens and culinary herbs, such as butter lettuce, kale, arugula, mint, basil, etc. Everything grown in a CGS is safe, clean, pesticide free and non – GMO. Why eat food that’s been shipped for days when you can have nutrient-rich produce that’s freshly harvested right here in Alaska? Straight from “farm” to table – this is our on-site advantage.

Customers can purchase our systems outright or lease them out. We also offer educational and service/maintenance packages as add on options.

We are currently growing lettuce in our generation 2 CGS located at Bell’s Nursery in Anchorage, Alaska. Our lettuce is for sale at Bell’s and in select Carrs stores around town.

Q. What is the history of the company and who are the founders?

Dan Perpich, Cameron Willingham and Linda Janes are the founders of VHH and the hydroponic farm.

Here’s more information on each team member:

Dan is an Army veteran with consulting and operational experience in large corporations and experience in doing business on several continents. He has an MBA from IMD in Switzerland and a BS in Environmental Engineering form the West Point Academy in New York. An avid outdoorsman and climber, Dan also helps transitioning veterans with finding a new home in various industries and companies.

Cameron has been in the agriculture business for a while. During his work at UAF as a professional researcher, he oversaw hydroponic production of lettuce, cucumber and tomato plants and managed 7 research and production green houses. He has also designed and built multiple commercial hydroponic production systems in Alaska. Besides VHH, Cameron is currently involved with Anchorage Maker Space, Alaska Food Policy Council and he is also a lifelong radio show host and DJ.

Linda is also an Army veteran with science and business backgrounds and with experience in healthcare and corporate America. Linda has a BS in Biology from UAF and an MBA from UAA. She continues self-education and research in the nutrition and wellness industries. Active in community, Linda volunteers in cultural diversity events around town and sings in a family band.

Being on the cusp of Gen X/Y, the three of us are all very aware of the food we eat and are part of the cohort that is determined to change the food industry. This is our common cause, which is extremely important to us and serves as fuel for all the long days we have spent working up to this point.

This common cause is also how we ended up meeting each other. Dan and Cameron have both been looking to meet a person who would be equally interested in starting up a venture revolving around local food production. They talked about it long enough and eventually were introduced to each other via a common friend at a BBQ. In the mean time, after having my son, I was looking to join a start up with a meaningful purpose. I stroke up a conversation with Cameron at a TEDx Anchorage event and then there were three.

Q. What inspired you and your co-founders to start Vertical Harvest Hydroponics?

This is a loaded question and we usually answer with a seemingly simple story about how we got started. Part of his duties as an Army infantry officer, Dan Perpich visited Resolute Bay Canada in 2011 and was wildly shocked by a wilted head of lettuce at a price point of $18/head. Choosing to rewrite this story, the Containerized Growing System was born, a mobile hydroponic farm designed to grow food in any weather to include the Arctic, all year around.

But at the heart of this question, are many stories and now close to a decade of behavior changes away from big packaged mass-produced foods to locally grown, artisanal and highly nutritious options. On the cover of June issue of Fortune magazine a title appears “The War on Big Food – consumers want fresh and organic – and that costs the major packaged-food companies $4 billion in market share last year alone.” To further explore this framework shift, here is a list that accounts for major motivations and need behind VHH and our indoor hydroponic farm.

A. Food security and self-reliance

For the majority of consumers in the state of Alaska, we are currently at the mercy of our food being grown in the lower 48. When it comes to leafy greens, California and Arizona are states that export to us, which is a long way away from home. Having to rely on the enormous supply chain, which is further highly dependent on things like oil prices, natural and man made disasters, produce availability and farm output, weather, etc, puts us at a very high disadvantage point. Not only is most of our purchasing power lost in the convoluted supply chain, but by the time produce arrives in Alaska, it’s nutrient deficient as well.

Being able to produce food locally and deliver it to the consumers within hours or a short number of days after the harvest takes out the middleman and reallocates the benefits directly to the community and the local producers. Lowered cost, higher nutrition, more buying power, reliance on consistent harvest, stable produce prices are the benefits that the state of Alaska can realize by adopting our model of growing produce.

B. Economic sustainability

Arguably, Alaska is the capitol of small, rural and geographically disparate communities. Usually, these small communities are not hubs of economic diversity and they rely on bigger companies for jobs and local revenue streams. Owning a hydroponic farm changes that status quo. People no longer have to move out to bigger cities or out of state to create a living and provide for their families. A CGS (Containerized Growing System) is a perfect family business. Everyone can get involved to include the kids. Likewise, businesses such as restaurants, hospitals, schools, correctional centers, grocery stores, can extract similar benefits for their employees, customers, students, patients, etc.

Bottom line for both examples is creating economic diversity, providing jobs, serving the local people and keeping revenue streams re-circulating within.

C. Food education

People are becoming more and more disconnected with the idea of knowing where their food is coming from. This distance can create a laissez-faire attitude, which gives us an excuse to be ignorant about things like food quality and food production costs – both on the environmental and economic scale.

I think that’s why we are seeing a big push back in favor of more local and smaller scale production, artisanal skills, farming knowledge, etc. Gardening classes of all sorts are becoming very popular as well. Once you start growing your own food, it’s extremely addicting. You have the power to control where your ingredients come from, which is important when it comes to ensuring health and wellness for the whole family and your community. As a side note, growing is a very Zen experience. Everyone should try it.

D. Health

A recent article in Fortune magazine (June 2015 Issue) highlighted the fact that the society is becoming more health conscious. Because their existence s being challenged, big companies are reinventing themselves and gobbling up smaller start ups who are offering a more authentic food experience. From our perspective, this is just a beginning. We are moving towards preventative medicine and at the core of that is consumption of healthy, minimally processed whole foods. Everything we grow right now in the CGS is GMO-free and without pesticides. We have options to grow using organic fertilizers or non-petroleum based fertilizers.

E. Lower environmental footprint

According to World Wildlife Fund, Agricultural practices are responsible for around 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that doesn’t take into account the impact of deforestation, erosion, etc. Vertical farming allows for large-scale food production, maximizing output while minimizing facility space and land requirements, water usage, electricity, waste, man-hours, etc. Our systems are also very insulated, thereby requiring less for heating costs. Additionally, bypassing the supply chain reduces the environmental load quiet extensively.

Q. As you grow, what are your goals as a business?

We would like to see our hydroponic farm in a variety of applications and locations in the State of Alaska, such as communities, correctional facilities, restaurants, remote camp operators, hospitals and clinics, schools, etc. Our goal is to streamline the ownership of a CGS and we have been helping our customers with business and marketing plans. We believe in our product and are here to help anyone interested from start to finish. There is also a need for simple, local food production in the rest of the world. Geographically disparate locations with complicated supply trains or with colder climates such as northern Canada to just name one, would greatly benefit form our growing system as well. Expansion into those areas would be our medium term goal.

Q. What has been your biggest accomplishment so far, and what is one obstacle that you’ve been able to overcome?

Our biggest accomplishment has been bringing produce to market in the Anchorage area. Our biggest obstacle was getting over the technological hurdles to do so. It is not easy to bring a product to market, and we learned so many lessons the hard way. Designing a system that can operate at 60 below and 80 above involves a long period of development. With the sales in stores, we finally can validate the technology we’ve spent the last year developing. As a result, we are extremely proud of the design and engineering behind our offering to the marketplace.

Q. Are you looking for anything at the moment? (Investment, press, partnerships, etc)

As we gain momentum, we’ll be looking for qualified people to join our team. Currently, we are looking to form alliances with organizations whose mission it is to promote economic development and sustainability, local food production, health and food education. Our goal is to make a difference in our state and meet those with similar mindsets. Please contact us [email protected]

Editor’s note: If you’d like to follow this innovative company’s progress and development, you can connect with Vertical Harvest Hydroponics on Facebook and Twitter.

Also, don’t forget to check out their website: Vertical Harvest Hydroponics