Rackspace co-founder Pat Condon and recent Trinity graduate Mitchell Hagney had just made a delivery of freshly grown leafy greens to One Lucky Duck juice bar at the Pearl and were celebrating over lunch at Cured.
"We're growing everything hydroponically," Condon said. "Want to see our farm?"
"What are you guys growing?"
"All sorts of good things," Hagney said. "Swiss chard, arugula, a spring mix of lettuces, basil, Dandelion greens, epazote. We deliver everything we grow within one hour of the time we harvest it."
My idea of a good time is a slow stroll with a big bag through the Pearl's Farmer Market, so it didn't take long to set a date. A few mornings later, Iris Dimmick and I set out from Southtown for the drive to "the farm." Turns out we didn't have to go far. This wasn't an outing to the growing fields of Poteet or Jourdanton.
Our destination was 503 Chestnut St., in the shadow of I-35, a former printing plant warehouse in the heart of San Antonio's Eastside that turned out to be the property of another Rackspace cofounder, Dirk Elmendorf.
Inside the empty, deserted warehouse, a telltale magenta glow emanated from an open shipping container tucked into one corner of the now-empty building. We shouted a few uncertain hellos and out of the glow stepped Condon and Hagney.
Welcome to LocalSprout, an urban, hydroponic startup farm that one day could be the source of hyper-fresh produce and herbs for the city's most demanding chefs, all cultivated in a year-round, controlled environment. Inside the 40 foot custom-designed container – the conversion product of Boston startup FreightFarm – strings of red and blue LED lighting hung from the ceiling, giving our skin a veneer of fuchsia.
The humidity levels were about the same as a Costa Rican cloud forest, but the water-based growing solution dripping down from PVC was almost soundless, the water consumption minimal. The leafy vegetables growing on vertical trellises looked grey in the light.
Hagney produced a knife and sampled the leafy greens bursting out of their "growing media" at eye level, a very different way of viewing plant food normally spotted at ground level.
We followed Hagney outside the trailer back into natural light where the greens took on a more appetizing color.
So much for reportorial distance from the story subject. We immediately helped ourselves to handfuls of peppery arugula, and moist lettuce and chard.
The greens were, as advertised, delicious.
"We aren't organic, we're better than organic," Hagney confidently said, his delivery coming at the speed of a well-tuned business pitch. "My greens are tastier than anything anyone else can buy. They're fresher. I never deliver more than one hour after I harvest. I don’t sell more than five miles away. The overarching aspiration of LocalSprout is to produce as much hydroponic produce as possible to compete with less healthy, less sustainable and less local alternatives."
"Are you a botanist or a horticulturalist?" I asked.
"Trinity grad (class of 2013), Communications major," Hagney, age 22, shot back. I later learned that the Nashua, NH native attended Trinity on a debate team scholarship and was a double major – also studying International Environmental Studies – a course of work that led him to internships at the Pearl Farmer's Market locally and harvesting coffee and working on an organic orange and mango farm in Costa Rica, too.
Now he bikes to work from his off-Broadway apartment to his near-Eastside "farm."
"There are three components to this hydroponic system: irrigation, climate control and lighting, " Hagney said. "The LEDs are the most advanced lighting and they provide a red and blue spectrum, which is what plants need to grow. When it comes to irrigation I have pumps attached to reservoirs of my nutrient solution that carry it up to the PVC, and it then drips down and through the greens and back into the reservoir. The only water loss is what the plants actually take up and transpire, which is why we use so little water. I collect the water from the air conditioning, too."
Hagney handed over some crushed cocoanut shell, which serves as the main ingredient in his moisture-retaining growing media, which looked like soil to me, but isn't. He then expertly harvested several crates of produce, all packaged in individual plastic bags. Some of the bounty was destined for One Lucky Duck. The rest was bound for the Tuesday Main Plaza Farmers Market downtown. All of the greens would be sold before lunch.
"I can grow 600 heads of kale a week, or 800 heads of lettuce," Hagney said, his rapid-fire lecture on the relative value of growing, say, basil versus green onions spilling out faster than I could take notes.
The challenge going forward, of course, will be to scale up and produce enough greens and herbs to make the hydroponic farm a viable business with enough volume to satisfy the daily needs of demanding chefs.
"I don’t think there’s much money to be made from farmer’s markets," Hagney notes, adding that the San Antonio Food Bank is the beneficiary of the Main Plaza Farmers Market. One of Hagney's goals is to make fresh, sustainable food part of the diet of people who live on the Eastside.
When he noticed a high number of homeless people loitering around the warehouse, which is next door to a Salvation Army home, Hagney walked over with 100 pounds of fresh produce to feed the charity's clients.
"The homeless people don't bother us now," Hagney said. "At some level they know fresh produce is really good for them, and otherwise would be impossible to eat."
Hagney and a college roommate originally planned on opening a greenhouse in a converted barn on the roommate's family property near College Station, but he was unable to interest Condon or other investors in the project.
After graduation from Trinity in June 2013, a homesick Hagney went back to New Hampshire. Hagney had met Condon through a friend and fellow Trinity debate team member, Nick Honegger, who works at VentureLab, a San Antonio startup and nonprofit that specializes in fostering entrepreneurship in kids through science and technology. The company was founded by Luz Cristal Glangchai, a former Trinity faculty member and Condon's life partner.
Hagney and Honneger, a Tampa native, actually first met some years ago while both were still in high school and competing at national debate tournaments. Both ended up winning debate scholarship to attend Trinity.
"Pat called me while we were in the regrouping stage and said he wanted to start an urban farm and he wanted me to do it in the city I wanted to be in," Hagney recalled. "San Antonio makes a lot of sense for hydroponics. We have cheap electricity, cheap land and cheap labor – what we don’t have is enough water or fresh produce."
Condon suggested Mitchell sign on as a consultant on the farm. Mitchell said no to the consulting offer and instead said he wanted to run the farm. Condon said okay and provided the startup capital. Hagney visited FreightFarm in Boston to negotiate the container sale and then returned to San Antonio in late 2013. Less than one year out of Trinity, he is now delivering product.
"At first I went to a lot of restaurants and they loved the idea, but they wanted proof of concept," said Hagney. "We aren't ready to meet their demand. Juice bars require a whole bunch of different greens and they will pay a premium for really fresh, pesticide-free greens. They're health conscious. They want high quality produce."
LocalSprout also supplies Urth Juice Bar at 5317 McCullough Ave.
"The local food movement has been gaining tremendous momentum around the country," Condon said. "Americans are becoming much more interested in understanding what is in their food and where it is coming from, which is really for the best. When I met Mitch I could sense his passion around the local food movement and I knew immediately he was some one I wanted to work with."
It's impossible to study an operation like LocalSprout without thinking about the inevitability of legalized marijuana and the business opportunities that will come with such change. The topic comes as no surprise to Hagney.
"There are more indoor marijuana farms than indoor lettuce farms in America," Hagney said. "Marijuana cultivation was the source of a lot of the innovation in hydroponic farming. The nutrient solutions now in use were the result of a lot of experimentation to maximize quality marijuana cultivation."
Hydroponic farming is taking root in cities across America, and more established operations are producing market-scale volumes of fresh greens and produce. Here is one recent story on Mashable about Sustainable Microfarms, which seeks to put the technology into the hands of urban dwellers everywhere. Hagney himself has written about his own and others' agricultural endeavors at SeedStock.com.
"Be sure to mention that one day I hope to grow food in space," Hagney tells me, the elevator closing on his words as we parted ways last week.