Best Friends Find Work Together Farming - In A Storage Container

Best Friends Find Work Together Farming - In A Storage Container

Best friends find work together farming - in a storage container

Updated: June 10, 2016 — 3:01 AM EDT

by Terri Akman, For The Inquirer

Sure, Parth Chauhan likes providing unblemished, just-picked lettuce, kale, cilantro, and other herbs and vegetables to his South Jersey community.

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And although the 25-year-old is sold on the concept - "This is a way for us to be on the cutting edge of technology," he said - starting HomeGrown Farms was just as much about satisfying his desire to work with his lifelong best friends, Raghav Garg and Zeel Patel.

Joint ventures are, after all, something the Eastern High School alums have always done well: selling candy bars and soda in middle school, hosting a dance for local high school students, and starting the Voorhees Youth Cricket League.

So, after each graduated from his respective university (George Washington, Rowan, Rutgers) and got a first job, the friends - without any farming experience - pitched in about $75,000 in personal savings and in January began growing plants hydroponically in a 320-square-foot refrigerated enclosed storage container in Pennsauken.

Now, an acre's worth of leafy herbs and vegetables are produced on metal shelves without soil, pesticides, or herbicides. Fluorescent lighting replaces sunlight, and Mother Nature's whims take a backseat to customized amounts of water and pumped-in essential nutrients. The group can tinker with their products - fortifying kale with iron, for example - and adjust type and output for individual customers. HomeGrown uses 90 percent less water and 80 percent less fertilizer than traditional farms, CEO Chauhan said, and it doesn't have to combat disease or bugs.

"We're basically a perfect summer day every single day."

So the crops stay fresh, all of HomeGrown's produce is sold within a 30-mile radius, which includes Camden. Chauhan, of Voorhees, said, "On average, most food in America will travel around 1,500 miles before it gets to your plate," and the majority of leafy greens and herbs come from Arizona, California, and Florida. The company plans to donate 10 percent to 15 percent of their harvest to food banks. These won't be leftovers; instead, the partners will grow that much additional food with the express purpose of giving it away.

"Our goal is to go from harvest to a person's plate within 48 hours," said Garg, 25, HomeGrown's CFO.

Versions of what HomeGrown is doing - vertical, urban farming - exist in Philadelphia and its suburbs:

There's South Philly's Metropolis Farms, the city's first indoor vertical farm, where hydroponic herbs and vegetables grow in nutrient-enhanced water in troughs; Herban Farms on Cheyney University's campus, where aquaponics (the marriage of raising fish and growing plants together in one integrated system) is used to grow herbs; and BrightFarms out of New York, in Bucks County, which designs, finances, builds, and operates hydroponic greenhouse farms at or near supermarkets.

In North Jersey, a 69,000-square-foot converted steel factory in Newark serves as the new headquarters of AeroFarms, which plans to harvest up to 2 million pounds per year.

HomeGrown's concept - with its charitable component - impressed judges in a George Washington University new-venture contest. Of 195 entrants from 105 teams, HomeGrown Farms took first place in its April competition, winning more than $75,000 in cash and prizes. "It was a sense of validation," Chauhan acknowledged.

"The combination of a social purpose with good economics is a winning formula," said Lex McCusker, director of student entrepreneurship at GWU. Though he expects the founding farmers to tweak their business model as they learn and grow, he sees a bright future for the business.

So far, the team has devoted most of the year to learning, getting help from the Rutgers co-op and other advisers. Their focus has been on marketing to restaurants and consumers. They donated the first few harvests, around 100 pounds of produce, through a local food bank, with the remainder going to tastings and sampling events.

"The opportunity to have year-round, fresh, seasonal, local produce is unheard of," said Patterson Watkins, who will begin buying from HomeGrown in August.

The chef manager at the University of Pennsylvania's English House Cafe has found the company's prices competitive and appreciates its willingness to grow products based on her needs. "There's quite a movement now into these ancient greens and tough-to-find herbs, salads, and vegetables. It's neat to have folks who aren't stuck to one kind of script but are happy to try out something new and see how it goes."

Brennan Foxman, owner of Wokworks in Rittenhouse, was pleased with the trial basil, kale, and salad mix HomeGrown Farms supplied this spring.

"Typically, you need to wash kale to a tremendous degree because it often carries a lot of bacteria," he said. "With hydroponic kale, you don't have to wash it because it's a closed system. So from a labor perspective and quality perspective, it's almost unmatched."

HomeGrown also is able to provide a uniformity in produce, a characteristic Foxman appreciates. Brussels sprouts, for example, should be of equal size to cook evenly in a wok. "These guys can match your restaurant supply chain," Foxman said.

Chauhan may seem an unlikely farmer, having studied international affairs, political science, and peace studies in college. But in February 2015, while researching possible business opportunities, he stumbled on an article about indoor farming in Japan. It spoke about repurposing factories after the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster to create indoor herb and vegetable gardens in areas that could no longer produce vegetables in irradiated soil.

"We thought this was our opportunity - they don't have anything like this in our area," recalled Chauhan, who still retains his job consulting for ICF International, working on Hurricane Sandy recovery.

Added Garg, "The more I learned about the state of our food system and the impact it has on the environment, the more I saw not only an opportunity but the need for the way we grow our food to change. As cities grow larger, they need to work on becoming more sustainable and food-independent."

Critics of indoor farming argue the systems rely too heavily on electricity for light and temperature regulation. HomeGrown is switching to LED lights, which consume less electricity. An eventual move into a warehouse will help them solve another challenge - a lack of space that prohibits growing larger crops, such as tomatoes and squash.

The trio has since invited Chauhan's college dance-team buddy, Pranav Kaul, 21, who graduated from George Washington this spring, to join the business as chief science officer, tasked with researching food quality and nutrients.

So far, only Garg has been able to quit his day job at the Publisher Desk to devote all his energy to HomeGrown Farms. The partners hope to follow suit by the end of the summer.

Acquiring a container site in Washington is in the works, as well as a second container in Pennsauken. The partners' plan is for 10,000-square-foot warehouses to follow in the next two years, and then ultimately to spread them throughout the world.

"We can place these units anywhere and create a warehouse system in an urbanized city so local people can access fresh produce and at the same time create good jobs," Chauhan said. "We'd like to bring these hydroponic systems to Africa, parts of Mexico, and India to be able to have an impact on a global level." 

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