From Bright Agrotech Dr. Nate Storey is here today who doesn’t just make vertical towers but also includes farming education at Upstart University – small farms being the future of food… and market gardening software ABLE.ag!
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When I was recently in Paris I met Kevin Morgan-Rothschild who had this awesome vertical gardening set up at this Agriculture Expo in Paris!
And he connected me with the inventor of their systems from Bright Agrotech Dr. Nate Storey! Who doesn’t just make vertical towers but also includes farming education at Upstart University – small farms being the future of food… and market gardening software ABLE.ag!
Yeah! so we’re just a hop skip and jump away! We’re down here in Laramie, WY, pretty close to the same climate conditions, some a little harsher down here sometimes. We’re a company that manufacturers growing equipment and we exist to allow small farmers to grow small businesses
- to serve their communities
- grow food
- to make food a little more local and a little less centralized!
So decentralizing food production! That’s kind of what were’ about and the equipment we design is all really focused on doing that and letting smaller farmers make more money off of smaller pieces of land! Hopefully building kind of a new industry around that…
Well you know you’ve got m curiosity peaked!
Tell us a little about yourself. You’re from the Flathead?
My grandmother’s family basically from Flathead, around Flathead lake, the other side of the family is from Ennis, and scattered from Billings, Missoula,and western Montana…
Tell me about your first gardening experience?
A lot of my first experiences were in Montana, my dad was in the airfare, everyone was a gardener. Even though we moved around a lot, we always had a garden, there were 7 kids in my family, if you want to feed 7 kids veggies, you put them to work in the gardner in the summer, and you can a lot and you store a lot and the only way to feed a bunch of kids on an income that isn’t extreme is with a garden!
Some of my earliest memories are in the garden either with my mother or father, grandparents, pulling massive carrots out of the garden and being amazed! Night and day eating raspberries… and just basically grazing….
I think you and my husband have a lot in common, cause he grew up here on a ranch with 4 boys, and he’s always talking about his mom’s cookie jar was always full because you had to keep them full because they had to keep working on the ranch and he’s the one that does the canning and growing the food! I think you guys probably had very similar upbringings, and it’s interesting he was born in Cheyenne Wells, which is probably similar to what you are now, in eastern Colorado…
I’ve been in Wyoming longer then anywhere else, I went ot high school in cheyenne, then I traveled for a bit, then I did my bachelors, masters, phd all in Laramie, here in town, and then I got married and had kids and I’ve been here almost 16 years…
You did all that in 16 years! It took me longer then that to just get my bachelors! I’ve been to Laramie several times going back and forth to Colorado and then working on the Indian reservation in Browning I’ve heard a lot about rodeo… that and road trips so some of that’s familiar to me… So how did you come up with the gardening green wall, was that with school? Tell listeners a little bit about your business.
Yeah, so we really got started with vertical towers… vertical gardening …. farming towers, started as part of my research…I was going research in greenhouses where we were paying for everything… all of the costs were volumetric, so the volume to heat a greenhouse… we were heating a volume not a flat plane, your structural costs, you’re building a volume not a plane…
so I thought about growing on horizontal plane vs multiple planes and wondering if light was a limiting variable. That was kind of the baseis for my research and I developed the towers as part of my research… just because it’s so cold here and it costs so much to keep a greenhouse heated and its’ February and the wind is whipping at 50 miles an hour and that’s not uncommon in February…
It costs us on our greenhouses here, based on my calculations we were spending about 1/4 million btus an hour just to keep the greenhouse at 55-60º… so this is a real problem for us and for small producers who want to heat a greenhouse during the winter and you’re gonna have to do that here if you’re gonna have a small commercial setup … so the towers were our response to that, a way to cram a little more production into less space without increasing our heating costs… so that’s kind of where it started.
Over time we realized that a lot of people want ot farm but they just needed a little help… We started the Upstart University where folks could network, where they could network with other people in their situation.
It’s really hard to be a farmer, it takes a lot of
- emotional support as well as
- educational support and
- physical support
and all these other things…
Upstart University – small farms being the future of food…
it takes a lot out of you, so definitely people is really important so we started USU… Upstart University which is our online learning platform, teaching people how to build small farms and how to get through the compliance work to sell your vegetables, and get crop insurance…
- how to build small farms
- how ot get though the compliance work
- get started started growing your vegetable
- how to get crop insurance
- get going faster
and how to these kinds of things, so we kind of started to build all these other things around the towers…
how to help people get going faster, we laugh about it, it’s sort of gotten out of control….we wanted to sell towers and help people farm, we ended up with a little company with a lot of products around it and divisions around this idea of small farms being the future of food… it’s been an interesting ride…
Well, I love all of that and you a talked about a lot of things that haven’t been talked about on my show! Especially farming being lonely and a place where you would want emotional support besides educational support… I think we should go back to the beginning… because if people haven’t heard my interview with Kevin do you what to explain what a vertical tower is and how things grow in them…
I was so excited I walked into the Health Food Store – Heaven’s Peaks Organics the other day and they were growing herbs right there in front of me in a vertical tower!
So, we’re using a tower that I designed it’s called the a zipgrow tower, it’s a square housing. It uses 2 strips of medium, it’s a fiber, a plastic fiber medium, it slides in there and the plants grow out of a slot in the face of that housing. It started with aquaponics, a form of hydroponics, where your using waste from fish and it’s dribbling down from the top of the tower, and it uses red worms, the red worms would be in there breaking down fish waste… it turns it into a giant living filter… that’s how we got started, a lot of people are doing hydro now..
It allows us to grow plants in a light weight form, and easy to handle
folks can go online and just google
zipgrow tower, because seeing it easier
The thing I loved is when I was in paris it was just like everything I like to grow and eat! So you’re doing this for farming?
Here’s the thing. traditionally people thought farming was a big thing and gardening was a small thing… if you were growing a garden it was smal scale… the concept of a market gardner is a new thing, it downplays the role of gardeners. We think that is the wrong way to look at it, that farming should be smaller and gardening should be bigger
number of people out there
# of people
Our hearts initially really for young people who wanted to farm, but with land speculation and all the things going on in the world right now, it’s almost impossible for young people to get into farming.. What if we could allow people to farm with a lot less land and get better margins
build a business around it
really what it means is blurring the lines between a traditional
we believe that farmers markets are gonna be populated by gardeners who have gotten a little bigger, not farmers who have gotten smaller…
ABLE Ag software
So originally we could set up small farmers or gardeners
grow in little space efficiently
- supplying a couple of restaurants
- grocery store
software ABLE.ag to let small farmers get up and empower people
if we could help them organizing things on the
teaching them how to market their products, bage them equip to allow them to do on a smaller scale…there was an opportunities
any type of opportunity for people who had never had the opportunity to do any commercial production
ultimately the idea is to take gardeners and make them small farmers!
I really think listeners are gonna love this, I think the majority of my listeners, are beginning gardeners, medium gardner are even some master gardeners but might want to get into farmer’s markets etc… and there are a lot of people who talk about the difficulty of getting into market gardening… what were you talking about
certifications and compliance stuff you have to do… all of the knowledge that you have to have to go from small scale to commercial
even we’ve been learning something about wen you have animals your not supposed to let your animals near your crops for 120 days… then when the guy came out to look at the high tunnels… I had never heard of them and I’ve tried to sell things at the farmer’s market very unsuccessfully but still. … and we’ve certainly gotten manure from other people…
There’s a lot of that info
barrier to entry for a lot of small growers
a little bit here and there
as you start to build more of a presence, you really have to be concerned with safety…
- will someone sue me?
- am IGAP compliment?
- sales tax
- the transaction
- questions there that can be hard to answer
make it available. We put together compliance packets if you want to sell to Whole foods etc… We have all of these packets that work though the compliance work, this is how the relationship works etc. Those details, everyone goes through that individually so everyone’s reinventing the wheel…. every farmer’s got to do this. So we are making it as avail across the spectrum. They can show up,
- take the info
- find the certifier
- person they need to talk to about sales tax
So people can get the info and they’re good to go…
want to make sure you have the info
if you’re gonna sell it at farmers markets or restaurants
litigious society, there are a lot of things on the food safety side…
I was thinking you wouldn’t even want to take a chance that someone could get sick…
And there’s a lot to be said for if someone says “I got sick off of your spinach”
there’s no way
your not GAP compliant
There’s no way man
You say, “I’mGAP compliant here’s my paperwork” Here’s the documents that say when I’ve done this…. you take that to court… and suddenly you have documentarians documentations documentations say… no…
state certifier come by
make sure your growing and handling techniques
- human health
- safety regulations
really important thing to do, if you are thinking about selling your organic produce.
all of our growers go through and info and GAP webinars available for free
more intensive courses is longer that come with Upstart University.
Now that you say that, I did go to this farm finance workshop and many of the people there that have been my gusts in the past, were talking about GAP compliance, if there was requirement if they put to a co-op together… apparently that’s something most people know about just not me…
Its a steep learning curve,can be a really steep learning curve and the goal is definitely figure that stuff out
for financing especially, you definitely have to get your gap certification, because they want to make sure you are doing your job as …
They were saying like you did, that it was really easy just like a 2 hour class….I was surprised because I thought we were just gonna talk about the vertical towers today.
It’s kind of funny sometimes with towers. We really just started with this product we believed in, and that we think is important. The hardware is great! And we still focus a lot on hardware because a lot of our customers are in cities, where they don’t have much land to farm. And the ground that is there is
- gravel field
- and just not the kind of ground that you feel super comfy growing veggies in.
So vertical towers are great for growing:
- on important
- on sides of buildings
- Huge Edible Wall at the Milan World Expo and pavilion and that’s the largest living wall in the world!
folks in the city can get really excited about because opening up gardening to people who had never had the opportunity to do it before! People People in the city who want to garden, want to farm to sell produce, it’s giving them a place to do that but what we’ve discovered is that, that stuff it’s only useful to a certain extent. If people don’t understand things like
- GAP certifications or
- they don’t know how to sell to their local market
It doesn’t matter how great your production is, the equipment is if folks don’t know how to sell the produce, that’s why we’ve gotten into the educational side of how to:
- sell their stuff
- barter, dicker on price
- more small business stuff,
then just gardening but it is so, so, so important!
We have definitely been expanding into places I never would have foreseen years ago. We continue to do it, as we continue to grow! I realize it’s important to see more people farming, gardening not just for culture, humanity and the economy and for the future of food we want to eat. To do that it’s a multi-faceted problem and not just give people the right hardware and they’re gonna do great!
It’s give them the right:
give them the ability to plan things out and create very sophisticated business plans for very small farmers
reduce the economies of scale advantages that big growers have over small growers.
Really what were ultimately trying to do is redistribute production from big farms to small farms and destroy kind of the notion if you want to farm if you want to sell produce you have to be a big time farmer to do that because it’s just not true!
It’s kind of why we’ve ended up in these weird places, because to sell the first thing was how to help people be more successful… Ultimately its’ let to this diversity of growers and this amazing community.
What’s able software?
is basically a software program that we’ve been putting together to helps small farmers plan their farms. Let me put it this way, the most complicated thing, about planning or starting a very small farm or market garden is matching produce with accounts and then tracking that and understanding how that impacts your revenue.
As a small farmer and market gardener how do you
- plan well
- plan for the next season
- design your farm
so we made this software to give the ability to plan out your farm. So taking info and helping folks to translate in tasks
- this is how much you have to plant on this date
- harvest on this date
- this is who it goes to
Eventually well fold a lot of other things into it, some compliance pieces
- food safety stuff in there trying to make food safety really simple for small growers. And it’s all free!
It’s free???? That’s crazy and that’s something maybe for my husband and I who are just starting out. We have just a 1/4 acre or 1/3 acre… you really encourage me that maybe if we have just a restaurant or two or a market…
It take’s planning so a lot of times, you don’t know till you plan it out. We varies tell tell tell lot of small farmers… sometimes we’re our own worst enemy… We tell people your gonna be able to make $30k with $15k worth of costs is that worth it?
That’s the answer sometimes… sometimes the flip side of that we say you’re gonna gross 2.4 million dollars a year on this thing and your total costs are only gonna be around $600,000 a year, so do this! It varies completely from market to market. You never know until you plan it out and put in all the details:
- who are you going to sell to?
- how much do they want?
- how much are they willing to pay for it
- what do you think your production is going to look like?
Traditionally folks have done this in excel, and it tends to be a fairly convoluted process by the time it’s all said and done and it impacts numbers somewhere else…
simplify that for small farmers, and helps them it’s a free resource to help them plan their farm out a little better and make that decision… ultimately you get spit out on a dashboard with your financials… it graphs out what your
- revenue looks like over the season
- how much cash on hand
gives you a pretty good idea whether or not you ought to do it or not…
… she really talks about numbers and how their head farmer, part of their success was because Ben heavenly took the time to do exactly that… and he did do it in excel spreadsheets at the time but it might be really nice to have a software app that you can just enter data into, that you can read and sort, and can ask you questions you don’t even know you need to know… she said that was CRITICAL to their success and that they realized knowledge is key! And they also had some student from a University who collected data for them….
Also I went to this farm finance thing a few weeks ago and they also said, there was a woman from an Ag Credit Union and they only loan money to farmers, she said business plan was essential to them and she talked about some tax papers you should be filing even if you’re not gonna producing anything to sell for 3 years but you might want to get a loan down the line … So I think that’s a crucial thing! It’s awesome! ABLE.ag? Thank you so much for sharing that resource with us and also creating this for people because in a lot of ways this is what’s gonna save our planet is changing the state of agriculture, especially in the US!
Do you have other things? Have I forgotten anything?
I this we kind of touched on the things that we’re passionate about:
- well designed hardware for small producers
- upstart education for farmers
- software side of things
Our goal is to enable folks to farm, I’d love to engage with your listeners and if folks want to use ABLE.ag we LOVE all the feedback we can get… we’re not in the software business… It’s actually kind of true of everything we create. We’re reluctant creators… so we see this need or we bang our head against a problem for a while, and no one else seems to be solving it even if it’s not in our area of expertise we really lean on community of farmers and we always love connecting with folks and love getting feedback – positive and negative it’s all really good at making tools better and helping more people get access to them…. and seeing more farmers get started… all over the US and hopefully the world eventually…
Nice! You just have a fascinating story! I think people are gonna listen to this episode one or two times because they’re gonna say what did that guy say or share because you have shared so much?!
So do you have a regular garden where you live there in Laramie WY? Do you want to answer any of my regular questions?
Yeah! Sure, I do, but I don’t spend nearly as much time on it as I should I feel a little guilty. I do have a little home garden and I really love seeing my kids out there. I am gonna plant one area to asparagus that I don’t like to mow I think it’s gonna be a good season! I’m really looking forward to a good year out there!
Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden?
I don’t really have a least favorite activity
During the summer time I’ll get up at 5:00, 5:30, so turning soil and turning compost is one of the most relaxing things I can do… so I love every single bit of it!
i don’t really have hobbies anymore it’s just like work work work…
What is your favorite activity to do in the garden?
Have a bit of a compost fetish, Im obsessed with it! My neighbors hate it because I might over commit on the compost thing and have massive piles that have a bit of an off smell, but my neighbors have to deal with it! I love seeing soil change in response to it and what we do it!
I just love every part of it!
I am looking forward to the day I can do more gardening and less farming and spend more time home with my family!
A favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be.
I go out and I just turn, I engage in, in farming they call it recreational tillage!
I engage in small scale recreational tillage! To relax I like to go out and turn soil over, it’s probably super boring, but a good shovel…
That’s interesting in this day and age of no-tilling method and don’t turn the soil so much! I can see it in the compost! One of my favorite things is to turn the compost over, and I like to dig new beds, dig out the sod and put a new bed in!
Yes there’s something very satisfying to breaking sod… I really do enjoy it! Roto-tilling similarly, and there’s a lot to be said for no-till, for folks that have the time and the energy and for older gardens especially no till can be a great way to go. I just get way to much satisfaction from turning soil…I may err on the side of higher intensity management compared to other folks!
A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?
Im a little obsessed with rhubarb! Strawberry rhubarb pie, anything rhubarb, rhubarb crumble.. rhubarb crisp. etc…
A favorite internet resource?
What do I use a lot? IDK. I don’t really use the internet outside of work… when I’m home.
Omnivores Dilemna Michael Pollan
I love enjoying reading gardening books, like Michael Pollen that write about food that have the connection to small gardening
I do love magazines I get my fair share of seed and farming magazines…
We could just put ABLE.ag for your resource cause that’s a great one!
Final question- if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
I feel strongly about a few things… one is of course farming, millennials farming more distributed, important
- more stable,
- having more small farmers on a local level,
- supplying communities with food
gonna be a really good things for our planet as we spread that production out as well as our society! Learning to rely a little bit less on fossil fuels and resources especially for things like refrigeration and all of those things that complicate food.
Feeding people is a complicated thing, i don’t want to simplify it.
refrigeration feel like we can all take some small steps toward food security
smaller food production and local farmers…
I know its interesting I didn’t bring it up.. the very first person I talked to about Aquaponics I pictured grocery stores and the produce person instead of going to the back and getting a crate of food, and granted your not gonna be able to grow everything in the produce department, but right away I pictured produce department people having this kind of system, and like schools because schools and hospitals are two big places where a lot of food is consumed and have cafeterias … Do you see the future going that way at all growing their own food this way or the small farmer going to the school?
I growing that the small farmer is an intermediate step. I think we’re gonna get tot eh point where food is hyperlocal in a lot of different ways, not all food but certainly some food. So like the lowest hanging food are things like lettuces… things with high water weight!
You know lettuce is 95-97% water! When you ship a lettuce head across the country you’re basically taking a bunch of water a little bit of carbon and putting it in a plastic case and putting it on a truck and burning diesel and electricity to keep it refrigerated and shipping it halfway across the country and then shipping it back and then again and then shipping it to a supermarket and then someone buys it and takes it home and eats a cup of water and throws away a bunch of plastic… I mean it’s crazy right.
But water moves through pipes really easily. so it’s a very economical way to move water around so why not move water through a pipe to a place where people want to eat lettuce and turn that water into lettuce and then feed the people lettuce that was grown on site. Up until now it’s been a technology thing slowing it down or hindering that movement towards the future. There’s so many great companies doing this kind of amazing work with this thing… I only see it getting better, more people engaging on this doing hyper local food…. I have no doubt that some day that when you buy food at the grocery store there’s a good chance it could have been grown on the roof… maybe you don’t even buy food from a grocery store… maybe you’re growing it all at your house and you’re house is designed to grow food for you… so I mean I think ultimately that’s where were gonna get to… because it just doesn’t make sense to move boxes in the back of a cold truck… you know…
You are the man! Thank you so much sharing this with us! You are like a true visionary! You and I see things a lot the same way! I hope listeners are inspired we don’t have to keep doing this and we need to keep honing those critical thinking skills we can do this! And things can change… I thank a loto of people get stuck in this this is the way it’s done and its too late to change and your’e providing solutions for people to partake in the change no matter how big or small…
Absolutely that’s the power behind it!@ The great thing is
I always say our gaol at Agrotech is to make
big ag smaller and small ag bigger!
It’s a great thing…when a lot of people do really small things it equals big things… A lot of people get lost in the smallness of who they are and when we behave collectively and when we do things as a group with a conviction and passion we have the ability to effect really big change!
That’s an important thing to remember! hopefully with the work we’re doing with the software, upstart university
showing people that this is true
hopefully we’re a really great example of it because we’re a bunch of kids in Laramie, WY in the middle of nowhere, that’s built this company and that makes this change happen….hopefully we can be a catalyst for that…
really great place to live in and we’ere fortunate to exist and to play a role in making this happen!
So are you a millennial then?
I was born in ’81 so technically I’m a millennial, but I kind of feel like Ive got one foot in the millennials and one in gen x…
I keep saying we have to make a special name for you guys who are between that 10 year space between 30-40 because I love the millennials but my listeners know I talk about them all the time, there’s something in that generation 1980-1985 group doing something special!
Do u have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?
Gardening is the most accessible thing that anyone can do, I always encourage people to garden, It’s one of the fundamental to our humanity and part of who we are, and it makes you better as a person when you take a part of that grow something!
How do we connect with you?
Go to… zipgrow.com
the software is ABLE.ag
If you are interested in Upstart University…. you can plug in there and start learning about compliance etc!
Have a great earth day! Is it sunny there? It’s sunny here…
IDK, I haven’t been out of the office in a while.
So, I found out about Dr. Nate Storey when I was researching Kevin’s show and I reached out because I saw the perfect job on their website for a Customer Happiness Team Manager but you have to move to Wyoming, it wasn’t an online job like I was hoping.
So, we always have a lot of jobs on our website, and we’re currently looking for a Happiness Coordinator and its basically for people who love to talk about their gardens, their farms and their problems and help them, so it’s kind of a fun job!
And you have to move to Wyoming!
That’s kind of a fun caveat! I was saying absolutely summers are heavenly and our winter’s are pretty harsh if you like to hunt, fish, climb, hike, bike it’s the perfect…
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