When Nate Storey of Bright Agrotech suggested I visit Haydn Christenson in Fort Collins, a farmer who uses Zipgrow Towers commercially, I envisioned a hefty guy in his late fifties or sixties in a flannel shirt riding his tractor across his wide spread. Such is our stereotype of a farmer. In reality, Haydn is a young man, a recent Agronomy graduate from Colorado State University, who utilizes four variations of intensive farming to turn ten acres into a viable commercial operation.
Haydn and his fiancé, Lindsey, purchased the ten-acre plat three years ago. They live in the house already on the property, and have added a greenhouse and an opaque grow room, as well as a vegetable garden, production garden and chicken pen. Haydn says, “It was the perfect property: good sun exposure, sloped to the south with a full tree barrier on the north.”
Haydn grew up on a large farm east of this area, commodity crops like wheat and hay. But intensive farming is a different proposition: high profit / high margin products for direct consumption like herbs and tomatoes that Haydn sells direct to local restaurants and Whole Foods. In addition to growing the food, Haydn handles weekly deliveries and marketing. “Last month I talked to fifty restaurants about adding my products, and got one new customer. But I am in line to add two more Whole Foods.” Haydn lost money his first two years in business, is on track to break even this year and hopes to clear a profit next. “In the meantime we have housemates and rent some of our pasture.”
Haydn’s operation can be broken down into four types of farming: irrigated outdoor plants, horizontal greenhouse plants, vertical greenhouse plants, and total environment control, grow room, plants. Each type takes successively more energy to operate, and produces correspondingly more yield. The key is to find the optimal energy/output for each plant he grows.
Haydn grows greens like kale and chard outdoors. They can thrive with the least amount of energy input and require a lot of space.
The greenhouse is an irrigated, mechanically ventilated space. Half of Haydn’s greenhouse is devoted to flats of lettuce. Lettuce grown horizontally makes large, firm heads ready to harvest on a three-week cycle that continues most of the year. He also has tomatoes and cucumbers in hydroponic pots. His Zipgrow Towers are for herbs, especially basil, and strawberries, which grow very well vertically.
Last year Haydn lost 75% of his basil crop when a pest swept through his greenhouse. He created a second herb area, a grow room, an opaque metal building where he controls light, temperature and water. The results are impressive – much higher yields than the greenhouse. Haydn operates the grow room opposite the solar cycle; running lights all night and keeping it dark all day. But his energy costs are still higher than the greenhouse.
I asked Haydn how he managed to keep his customers in produce when he was hit by a crop loss. “I am not Whole Foods’ only supplier, or even their main supplier. They are happy to get whatever I can produce, and advertise their local connection. But they have large-scale suppliers from California to make sure they never run out of basil.”
Haydn will continue to refine what he grows where. Over time, he plans to take over the pasture he rents out and use his full ten acres for intensive farming. “A 6,000 square foot greenhouse is the minimum a farmer needs to make a living. I would like to have a separate one just for tomatoes. I need to clear $120,000 per acre per year to make this operation profitable.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“Our food supply is getting more local all the time. We have a long way to go, but we’ve come far. Whole Foods has changed the entire supermarket business. Go into a King’s Sooper today. It looks a lot like a Whole Foods, it has organic produce and local produce. Ten years ago, there was none of that.”