Recent Press

Asheville Urban Farms Brings Hydroponic Farming to Asheville

faRM

Story & photos by Leah Shapiro

As its name implies, Asheville Urban Farms (AUF) is not located in the country as are most farms. Rather, it’s in West Asheville, across the street from Carrier Park. This fully functional, indoor greenhouse acts as a community-based farming model that demonstrates the social, economical, and environmental benefits of hydroponic farming.

“This is the way it works in nature,” explains Bill Muller, a former NASA employee who has adopted and modified the various hydroponic systems found here. “Take a forest. No one is out there fertilizing a forest, but it is growing pretty well on its own.”

farmBill explains that pesticides and fertilizers interrupt the symbiotic relationship between the roots of a plant and the nutrient solution that allows the plant to grow. He, along with Sherrye Coggiola and her husband Anthony (they own Cantina Biltmore and she’s the current president of Asheville Independent Restaurant Association), work to mimic this natural process in the AUF warehouse, which operates 365 days of the year without the interference of harsh weather conditions.

“We use microbiology and natural elements that are normally created through microorganisms to generate the elements necessary for plant growth,” explains Anthony. He says he has implemented these kinds of food emergency relief systems in disaster-stricken lands, including Iraq and parts of Eastern Europe.

Hydroponics, the system used at AUF, refers to plants grown in a solution as opposed to soil. Made from water and decomposed organic matter (such as that from trees and other plants), this “compost tea,” as it is referred to, is aerated and then filtered into a reservoir with a pumping system.

“We never have to get rid of our solution, we simply have to recharge it,” Bill explains. This zero balance water system means that 90% less water is used as compared with traditional farming systems.
Plants in the warehouse can be in one of several systems, including the deep-water raft system, microgreen tower, nutrient film technology, and organic carousel. Since AUF is designed as a demonstration site, other growing configurations will be used and tested. The educational component here can prove vital to a sustainable farming initiative.

farmAUF is currently developing partnerships with North Carolina State University’s Agricultural and Extension Education and A-B Tech’s Sustainability Technologies program to teach the “how” and “why” of urban farming. “Whether it’s by way of the engineering, math, or plant science sides of AUF,” Anthony says, “we will be able to bring in professionals to benefit the farming community at large.”

Ultimately, the owners of AUF hope this urban farm will be replicated. Ideally, there would be one every ten miles in urbanized area. “We want to create business, not necessarily just one job,” says Anthony who calls potential franchise owners “agripreneurs.”

In what is known as “farm boot camp,” veterans Anthony and Bill will assist other veterans in accessing farming-related careers.
Partnered with Green Opportunities, AUF will facilitate hands-on learning in “green” jobs. Additionally, AUF hires employees through The Arc and will soon begin a year-round program with the National Youth Chamber of Commerce that will improve students’ skills in leadership, supply management, sales, and teamwork through group problem solving on site.

Since opening last September, AUF has focused on growing for restaurants in a “plant to plate” program. Current participating restaurants include Strada, Posana Café, Tupelo Honey, and Green Sage.

In addition to increasing the number of plants raised in the greenhouse, Anthony, Bill, and Sherrye also plan to grow these commercial and community programs. Interconnected, the social outreach components relate back to the environmental benefits, Anthony explains. “We want to help heal the earth.”

 

1“We play Native American music for our plants all day,” said Anthony Coggiola, stepping into his humid hydroponic West Asheville grow room.

If “grow room” conjures up images of a nefarious nature, you’re not alone. But Asheville Urban Farms’ chief goals are ending food insecurity and supplying food for restaurants in Western North Carolina and beyond.

And the only things sprouting under Coggiola’s grow lights are edibles.

Along with Bill Muller, a “founding farmer” of Asheville Urban Farms, Anthony and Sherrye Coggiola grow food in a sprawling Amboy Road warehouse that previously housed a solar-panel manufacturer, FLS. Now filled with gurgling hydroponic systems, the 10,000-square-foot space allows for the year-round growth of more than 25,000 plants.

Growing hydroponically means going without soil, so there’s a lot of water (and organic nutrient solutions) flowing through the room — through pipes, in containers that hold rafts of tiny plant plugs and “Dutch buckets,” into which squash plants dangle their roots. Much of it is built on multilevel plant stands, vertically oriented to maximize space. And it’s all built with items easily found at a hardware store, like PVC pipes and plywood.

Near floating rows of kale and Swiss chard, destined for Tupelo Honey, Asheville Urban Farms grows wheatgrass for Green Sage and microgreens for Strada. They’re also growing herbs and vegetables that could see the inside of a taco at Neo Cantina, which Sherrye and Anthony have owned since 2009. As restaurateurs, they know firsthand about the fluctuations of food costs — influenced by factors like drought in the Midwest and fuel prices — so they have extra incentive to grow their own.

Sherrye recently became the first female president of Asheville Independent Restaurants, a mere three years after becoming an “accidental” restaurateur. And when she says accidental, she means that, for her, the move was a 180-degree turn.

Coggiola’s family is in real estate and owns the Biltmore Village building where Neo Cantina is located. Coggiola herself had been an owner of a real estate business, Properties Perfected, for more than a decade. La Paz, a Mexican restaurant that catered to the Village tourist crowd, faltered in the family’s building in the financial decline of 2009. As her family weighed their options, Sherrye appealed to restaurant-owning friends to encourage them to open up shop in the space. But no one bit. “Based on the economy and the large size of the restaurant, it just wasn’t going to happen,” she said. With her father’s health in decline, keeping the building vacant was not an option. So, keeping the staff of La Paz, Sherrye reopened the restaurant as Neo Cantina, a Southwestern grill serving all that entails: fajitas, enchiladas and burritos, plus some lighter veggie fare. “Three years on the other side, and we’ve never missed a rent payment,” she said.

Running the restaurant was a lot of work and, at the time, Anthony was frequently overseas for his work with an international consulting business. Anthony and crew traveled to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa, building hydroponic food systems in regions going through periods of food insecurity. Sometimes those regions were shifting from state-controlled farming to private enterprise, or recovering from war.

“As his wife, (I thought) it was very glamorous that he did international business, but not in Angola and not in Iraq,” Sherrye said. “So I said, ‘Look, come back here, and let’s focus on this for a while.”

Homegrown

These days, the Coggiolas spend a lot of time eyeing the bottom line. It quickly became apparent that what Anthony was selling in Angola could be just as useful in Asheville. “As we were focusing on the restaurant, we learned about fluctuations in produce pricing; sometimes I can pay $15 for a case of tomatoes, sometimes it’s $80,” Sherrye said. “But I can’t change the price of my taco.”

And beyond the cost of salsa, there’s the fact that Western North Carolina, this fertile, restaurant-filled so-called “foodtopia,” has its own problems with food insecurity.

According to a 2012 report compiled by City Council member Gordon Smith and the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council, one in six people in WNC can be identified as “food insecure.” Causes are many but include limited availability of local and sustainable food. The report identified numerous food deserts in 2010, with only 58 percent of the population having access to healthy foods. Solving hunger problems here could include such efforts as improving local food infrastructure — like hydroponic farms.

Hydro on the roof

Hydroponic systems are well-situated to growing in the strangest of places. Brooklyn’s Gotham Greens, which also uses hydroponic growing methods, occupies 15,000 square feet of the rooftop of an abandoned bowling alley and turned out about a ton of produce in its first year.

The New York Observer reported that Gotham Greens weathered the recent winds of Hurricane Sandy, which swept through the Northeast, leaving many without food or power. “We’re busy harvesting and sending out produce to our customers. Our greenhouse facility was unaffected by Sandy, and our crops are in great shape,” CEO Viraj Puri told the Observer.

If WNC had to endure its own disaster, Anthony thinks Asheville Urban Farms would be equally prepared. After all, he said, the grow room was built as a functioning exhibition farm to demonstrate self-sufficiency to countries like Iraq, which imports more than 80 percent of its food and struggles with hunger during periods of unrest.

“We study that a lot, because we look at that vulnerability in other countries,” Anthony said. “We’re pretty close to subject-matter experts on what types of solutions would reduce the impact (of a disaster)... An uber-local food-growing and distribution is a way for a community to shore up their own stock,” he said.

Asheville Urban Farms is working to install photovoltaic panels to harvest sunlight for energy and will soon launch a Kickstarter campaign to purchase a generator that can run on biodiesel — gathered, appropriately, from friers at restaurants like Neo Cantina.

Growing jobs

Hopefully, disasters are a long way off for Asheville. In the meantime, the plants keep growing, and they need tending. And for those who have the hardest time finding jobs — veterans suffering from PTSD or the mentally or physically disabled — hydroponic farms serve as a model vocational rehabilitation opportunity. Both male founding farmers of Asheville Urban Farms are veterans themselves.

Liberty Corner Enterprises, a vocational rehabilitation center on Coxe Avenue in downtown Asheville, operates a similar hydroponic grow room called Fresh. Fresh mostly grows culinary herbs, which are sold at local restaurants and groceries. Jenny Reggi is LCE’s director, and has seen Fresh positively impact a number of clients, many of whom have physical or cognitive disabilities. Reggi said the benefits to the model are many, but primarily the atmosphere is soothing and quiet, and the work stimulates both physical and cognitive skills. Representatives of the Veterans Affairs hospital have even approached Reggi to discuss starting a similar program.

“It lends itself to all kinds of skill levels, as well as all kinds of interests for people,” she said.

Hot box

With Asheville Urban Farms, replication is the goal. Ultimately, the Coggiolas hope to package minihydroponic farms in shipping containers that can be dropped into food deserts and disaster-struck areas like high-tech care packages. The biodiesel generator is an extra piece of that disaster-relief puzzle. Asheville Urban Farms is currently looking at various grants to push the effort along, but much of the funding comes from the Coggiolas.

“Like any business, we have a considerable amount of money (invested) in this,” Sherrye said. “And it may take years to get it back, but we’re not looking at that.” Instead, she said, she hopes nonprofits will want to purchase the “pods” for distribution to in-need areas.

Speaking of fish, an aquaponic system is in the works to start growing tilapia, a popular fish taco ingredient. “In my restaurant, the white fish that we bring in is from China, and I don’t want to do that anymore,” Sherrye said. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, less than 10 percent of the tilapia eaten in the U.S. is raised domestically.

Sherrye says her work as AIR president — and the positive influence of other local restaurant owners — drives her desire to provide a locally-sourced product.

“Some of the only negative feedback I heard from folks (was) that there was this opinion that AIR was an old boys network,” she said. “And it’s exciting for me to see some of the accomplishments we’ve made over the last three years, like getting West Asheville restaurants involved, and the movers and shakers that are new to Asheville.” And AIR, particularly with all of that fresh blood, has provided Sherrye with the support she needs to navigate the choppy waters of restaurant ownership. “They’ve helped me personally as the ‘accidental restaurant owner.’ The support that they’ve given me, just trying to fend my way through this industry, has been amazing. It’s awesome for me to be taking this role, and we’ve got a really cool foundation laid to move forward this year.”

Asheville Urban Farms is at 239 Amboy Road, across from Carrier Park. It is open to the public for tours. Visitwww.ashevilleurbanfarms.com for more.