Industry: Food & Beverage
Founders Roberto Meza and Dave Demerling are rethinking local agriculture with their family-run hydroponic farm.
When childhood friends Meza and Demerling reconnected in the early 2010s, the seed that would eventually grow into a flourishing farm was planted.
"Dave had been researching hydroponic farming in California, and I was actually working on a farm in Ohio," Meza recalls. "We started tossing around the idea of starting our own and, after some market research, decided to do it in Colorado."
The pair relocated to the state in 2013 and bought a 35-acre site in Bennett, a small town about 30 miles east of Denver. "Colorado has 300-plus days of sunshine, so it's perfect for a greenhouse production," Meza continues. The area also "really needed a bit of a push in terms of developing its food system."
While slowly building the farm's infrastructure, Meza and Demerling began to narrow their focus. "We weren't sure what we should choose in terms of our crops," Meza explains. "I thought maybe we could produce tomatoes or a market garden for chefs, but then I started to grow microgreens at a property I was renting in Broomfield."
At the time, consumer interest in microgreens was growing rapidly. Researchers had found that the tiny, edible greens -- which are harvested between 10 and 14 days after germination -- can contain several times the levels of vitamins and carotenoids as the fully-grown vegetables. Recognizing the rising demand, Meza and Demerling decided to devote their farm to microgreen production.
Meza says that over the last few years, they've refined their growing process. "Through our experience, we learned the most advantageous techniques and approaches for our model," he explains. "We started in a 150-square-foot greenhouse. Then we moved into a 250-square-foot greenhouse. Then into a 1,500-square-foot high tunnel. Then we decided to build our 3,000-square-foot commercial greenhouse."
Today, trays of seeds are germinated in a shipping container. "It keeps the temperature steady and we don't have to use lights," Meza continues. The trays then move into the farm's new passive solar greenhouse. "We use geothermal technology to mitigate temperature throughout the year so that we don't have to rely on our auxiliary heating and cooling system. That really brings down costs for us."
The farm produces about 500 trays of microgreens each week including a spicy mix, smoothie mix, micro broccoli, micro radish, micro kohlrabi, sunflower shoots, and pea shoots. "That's about 190 pounds a week," Meza says. The microgreens are harvested each day and held in a walk-in cooler overnight. "Then, in the morning, our local delivery partner picks up the microgreens to deliver them to chefs, individual residents, and a few wholesale grocery accounts."
Meza notes that the sunflower shoots, pea shoots, and micro broccoli are the farm's current best sellers. "The sunflower shoots are the most kid-friendly," he says. "A lot of the time kids have this perception that anything green is bitter and tastes like chlorophyll, like kale or spinach. But microgreens have a very different flavor profile. They are a little bit sweeter and crunchier; kids really like them."
Challenges: Meza says Emerald Gardens' biggest challenge is distribution. "It's difficult to find a reliable model for distribution that works with our margins," he explains. "A lot of distributors are working with bigger corporate farms out of California that can offer a lower price point. But because these farms are shipping their product, they're also lowering its shelf life. So, we're trying to convince some of the local and regional distributors in our state that we're a viable local option for microgreens while developing our business-to-business and direct-to-consumer models as well."
Opportunities: Meza says the forecast is to grow at least 50 percent in 2020 as the company builds partnerships with high-volume institutions. "We just piloted a program with Boulder Valley School District," Meza explains. "This will be the first time that microgreens are available to students. We're hoping to replicate that work with hospitals, assisted living facilities, even gyms and wellness centers."
Meza says Emerald Gardens is also going to partner with several consulting firms to develop educational opportunities and workshops around hydroponics and food systems. "I'd love to partner with local schools to generate interest in the next generation of farmers," he continues. "A lot of farmers are retiring, and there aren't a lot of younger people who want to get into it. We're hoping to encourage students to look at agriculture in different ways."
Needs: Meza says financing the farm's infrastructure development is always going to be an ongoing need. Though he and Demerling are currently working to convert a portion of their shipping container into a commercial kitchen, he expects to outgrow the space quickly.
"We're going to need to build another commercial processing kitchen that is able to be certified at the highest level for food safety purposes," Meza says. "We also need to put in more electrical and piping for water if we want to scale our business to the next level. We're looking at some USDA loans but also seeking some investment at the moment. We've had a few offers already, but none have really satisfied our requirements for partnerships."