Urban farming startup savors the salad days

Partners Chad Treloar (left) and Ted Myers launched Urban Greens three years ago in a downtown Iowa City basement. Today, their operation has expanded to several locations and the company has big plans for future growth. PHOTO KATHARINE CARLON

By Katharine Carlon

They may not have an acreage, and their “farm” is located in the basement of a house near downtown Iowa City, but the team behind Urban Greens believe their underground hydroponics operation is poised to ride the wave of a more sustainable, eat-local future.

They also have ambitious plans – including bringing their nutrient-packed microgreens to a wider customer base by transforming vacant big-box retail space into large-scale urban farms.

“Urban farming is something that is really taking root in larger metropolitan areas where there’s more people, more abandoned buildings, and it’s more expensive to get food,” said Chad Treloar, who launched Urban Greens with partner Ted Myers in the spring of 2017. “We decided to do it in this area because we both grew up here in Iowa. We wanted to learn the business, grow it and then expand outward into our community.”

Urban Greens began life with just a few plants grown under LED lights in soil, in the coal room of a 115-year-old house at 1135 E. College St. Today, the operation occupies the entire (renovated) lower level, supplies a growing number of grocery stores and restaurants, and is looking to aggressively expand its network of growers.

Already, a team of new urban farmers at satellite locations elsewhere in Iowa City and Solon are producing red Russian kale, Red Acre cabbage, bok choy and arugula, among other leafy greens, using just nutrients and water.

“What we’ve been working toward, after deciding that the hydroponic route seemed pretty ideal for the structure of our company, is designing these systems so robustly that essentially we can set up in any space and anyone, even without any growing knowledge, can successfully produce,” Mr. Myers explained. “As the company expands, we are partnering with folks in sort of a grassroots production … expanding to other sites, teaching these growers the ropes and developing our system such that these [growing] racks can be popped up anywhere.”

The company’s five baby greens products – including its flagship Superfood Mix, a blend of bok choy, kale, broccoli and cabbage – are available at three Iowa City-area Hy-Vees, all three Corridor New Pioneer Co-ops, and have been featured at dozens of area restaurants.

To keep up with demand, Urban Greens has leased up space off the Herbert Hoover Highway west of Iowa City for processing and packaging. It’s also considering taking over an adjacent unit to double current production and scale up enough to justify handing off logistics responsibilities to distributors instead of handling deliveries on their own.

Within the next three to five years, the company hopes to open a mega-growing facility within a space like the former Iowa City Kmart or the North Dodge Street Hy-Vee, turning a symbol of dying retail into a center of employment and fresh, local food.

“We’re interested in places that already exist, which is why we chose to do this in our basement instead of building a shed out back,” said Mr. Treloar, citing the company’s commitment to sustainability, limiting waste and “bootstrapping” its way to the top. “All of these big box stores are closing around the country with big open floor plans, utilities and access to loading docks and parking lots. You couldn’t think of a better place to set up urban farms.”

Urban Greens’ founders – friends and University of Iowa graduates who both returned to school in their 20s after taking time off – never intended to become entrepreneurs in the local food movement. Mr. Treloar studied environmental science and spent a year working on a North Dakota drilling rig – “right in the belly of the beast,” he jokes – for a year after graduating. Mr. Myers planned to go to medical school, but became fascinated with food systems while taking sustainability and public health classes.

“All of the food systems today are based around fossil fuels, you know, transportation of foods across entire nations,” said Mr. Myers, who believes climate change will render that model unsustainable. “That was a big part of our motivation – to grow really healthy food, really close to where it’s sold in an affordable fashion.”

The idea for Urban Greens was hatched around the time Mr. Myers was graduating and Mr. Treloar returned to Iowa after his year on the rig. Inspired by Mr. Treloar’s father’s local food production company in northeast Iowa, the two men began experimenting with indoor gardening set-ups, “making all kinds of mistakes along the way,” Mr. Treloar noted.

Urban Greens’ hydroponic crops, which go from seed to harvest in about 16 days, include bok choy, several kale varieties, broccoli, cabbage, arugula, mizuna and garnet mustard, and Red Rainbow and China Rose radishes. PHOTO KATHARINE CARLON

After first growing plants the traditional way, in soil, they switched to burlap as a growing medium. That eliminated soil-borne pests and disease, as well as the need for pesticides and herbicides, but also generated waste and extra costs.

Today, Urban Greens’ modular growing system utilizes a reusable material, made of recycled plastic bottles, as a medium in a process that sees plants go from seed to harvest about once every 16 days.

“From the start, we’ve been very motivated to bootstrap this operation, to utilize materials that we had on hand, and recycle anything possible to make it as efficient and sustainable as we could,” Mr. Myers said, adding that the biggest challenge of getting into hydroponic farming is the cost of equipment, which normally requires loans and outside investment, something the company is not interested in for now.

“It always depends on what strings are attached,” Mr. Treloar said. “You can’t fake local products – it is or it isn’t. And we think there is going to be a big market for food consumers can trust.”   CBJ