Tucson Business Aims To Harvest Produce, Deliver The Same Day
Tucson Business Aims To Harvest Produce, Deliver The Same Day
Chaz Shelton admits that what he’s doing looks suspiciously like lettuce-farming.
What makes his business, Merchant’s Farm, unique is the concept, Shelton said.
He wants to bring the farm to the city — to vacant lots and rooftops. He wants to provide restaurants, stores and single consumers with fresh, nutritious produce that is delivered the same day it is harvested, by commercializing the latest advances in aquaponics.
Shelton grows edible plants and fish in a soil-less, symbiotic system that uses a tenth of the water of standard agriculture.
Ultimately, he envisions an “Uber-like” model of quick supply upon demand for fresh produce in urban settings.
He’s starting on the fallowed fields of Howenstine High Magnet School on South Tucson Boulevard, which Tucson Unified School District closed in 2013.
The vacant field north of the school now holds a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse. It’s capable of growing nearly a half-million pounds of produce per year, Shelton said.
Inside the climate-controlled greenhouse, the roots of plants floating in water tanks are fed a nitrogen-rich stream of water fertilized by thousands of tilapia.
“It’s a very effective way to grow food,” said Kevin Fitzsimmons, a University of Arizona professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science.
Fitzsimmons is an international expert on aquaculture (fish farming), hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and aquaponics, which combines the two concepts.
He has helped set up agricultural systems from Myanmar to Marana.
Nelson apprenticed with Fitzsimmons for a time at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, which is developing new growing systems and customizing them for locations as extreme as Antarctica and Mars.
The concept is simple, said Fitzsimmons.
“The fish supply the fertilizer and nutrients. The plants remove the nutrients and clear the water,” he said.
Naturally occurring bacteria, meanwhile, convert the fish waste into plant nutrients.
The process is not necessarily simple in execution.
“It’s a complex microbial community that you need to keep healthy,” said Fitzsimmons. “If the fish get sick, the plants get sick, and if the microbes get sick, you’ve got real problems.”
For now, Shelton, his partner/father Bill Shriver and one part-time employee perform all the labor at Merchant’s Garden — planting seeds in a “rock wool” medium to germinate, transferring seedlings to the floating beds, harvesting plants and delivering them to customers.
Customers include a number of area restaurants where freshness and quality are valued, he said.
Chef Janos Wilder has been using the farm’s romaine lettuce to prepare Caesar salads at his Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails and has been pleased with its crispness and freshness. “I really like the product we’ve been getting from him so far,” Wilder said.
Wilder said he’s working on a long-term contract for romaine and watercress from Merchant’s Farm.
“It means a lot to me to have local options. I’ve been working on (local food sources) for 30 years and now there are so many farmers and producers around. It just reinforces the ethos we have,” he said.
Shelton said he can tailor his inventory to a restaurant’s needs — watercress for Wilder; Thai basil for an Asian restaurant and big-leafed lettuce for a gourmet burger joint.
He doesn’t see himself competing with local farmers, so much as filling a need for a consistent supply that isn’t interrupted by growing seasons. He can grow summer vegetables in winter, and lettuce during Tucson’s summer heat.
Shelton’s idea began in college where he studied, at first, in the public health field. While attending the University of Pennsylvania, he worked at a a clinic in Philadelphia, encountering cases of “extreme obesity and extraordinary malnutrition.”
Those contradictory pathologies resulted from a variety of causes, but diet was definitely one of them, he said. “I’m not sure there is a single answer, but access to healthy foods is a big one.”
“I started wondering ‘How do we bring healthy food into the city?’ and thought ‘How about we just bring the farm into the city?’”
In furtherance of that goal, Shelton switched majors and schools to study finance and entrepreneurship at Indiana University.
His parents, Bill and Cindy Shriver, had moved to Tucson and connected him to Fitzsimmons and the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, where he apprenticed for a while.
He competed for and won a spot in Thryve, a business accelerator program run by Startup Tucson, during his summer break from classes.
“They made phenomenal connections for me. Tucson just seemed like the place,” he said.
When he went back to Indiana to complete his MBA, he put together a business plan that won IU Bloomington’s 2015 BEST competition, which came with a prize of $100,000 in investment in his future company.
More than that, he said, it connected him with investors who have since tripled that total.
A couple of other things came together for him at the same time, Shelton said.
Tucson city government was working on urban agriculture amendments to its zoning code that made it possible to open a growing operation in a neighborhood not formerly zoned for it.
“We were the first applicant,” he said.
He worked simultaneously with the school district and its board to lease land at the Howenstine site. “We took a vacant piece of land and turned it into a food machine,” he said. The plan includes educational trips to the farm by TUSD schools.
Shelton is planning a second investment round to expand into the Phoenix area and he has his eye on a rooftop in downtown Tucson.
He said he also plans to continue working with the UA to commercialize the many innovations of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.
“We need to commercialize and advance some of the innovations out there right now,” he said.
“I’m not going to be a great farmer or researcher or whatever, but I’ve worked in venture capital. I’ve already commercialized other technologies.
“I can take existing technology from UA and bring it to market,” he said.
Contact reporter Tom Beal at firstname.lastname@example.org or 520-573-4158. Follow on Facebook or @bealagram on Twitter.