AVFfm – The Vertical Farming Podcast

AVFfm – The Vertical Farming Podcast

In February of this year, the city of Atlanta hosted its’ first indoor agriculture conference titled #Aglanta. Mario Cambordelli, Atlanta’s first Director of Urban Agriculture was one of the primary organizers of this unique event. The Association for Vertical Farming Broadcast Manager: Jason Moon had a chance to recap the Aglanta conference with Mario and discuss the development of indoor agriculture and it’s future role for the city of Atlanta.

You can listen to our first episode right here.

For additional remarks from prominent figures who also attended the summit, see the transcription below:

Elaine Kung: It was great to see the whole day come together because it was the culmination of months of planning. On Blue Planets part, Jeffrey’s Part. Another cool thing about it was that in terms of being a conference, i feel like conferences often have a stiff, exclusive feeling where only bigger companies can afford to be there. So it was really cool to see that. One of our taglines was “where community meets opportunity” and I felt like that really came into play. The whole community aspect of having not just the bigger companies like southern company and bluelab but also having the non profit organizations like truly living well, real community based stuff and even startups like Hamama. I think it was really great to have that variety along with the homey community feeling. Which I think it is something that even though I don’t have alot of experiences with conferences, I feel like that it is something that is not often seen at these types of conferences.

 

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Jeff Miller: I am actually from Atlanta, I work with 5 metro counties. I live in Snellville. We have the metro area footprint of the five counties. I am the extension coordinator with UGA extension.

Q: *What Brings you to Aglanta*

Jeff Miller: Well from the standpoint of Urban Agriculture, one of the program areas that we have with through UGA extension is Ag and Natural Resources, 4H and Family ____ Science. So Urban Agriculture fits into all 3 of those program area really nicely. We are the educational outreach arm of the University of Georgia. There is a office in every county, all 158 in the state of Georgia. In each one of those offices there are three program areas that have agents that bring the non biased research information from the University of Georgia to the citizens of their county.

Q: *Is this published information?*

Jeff Miller: Yes, the information that we use is all vetted and is all research based out of the University of Georgia along with other universities. So the way our process works is the community sort of identifies what the issues are in that area and we see what we can do to bring educational approaches and information to that. To give you an idea for Urban Ag… urban agriculture, vertical farming these types of things because you don’t have the kind of room in the Atlanta area for planting in the ground and growing it, it’s (Urban Ag, Vertical Farming) the perfect combination of bringing urban agriculture to the metro area. We can help educate around organics, pests, disease control these types of things.

Q: *Is there anything that you learned, that stood out from Aglanta that you think would be able to help communities with urban agriculture*

Jeff Miller: I thought Mario, Stephanie, and all those guys did a great job. One thing that is interesting to me is listening to the talks on vertical farming about the platforms. I thought that was fascinating because it gave you an idea of not only how to do this (vertical farming) but what to watch out for in businesses. That is apart of our endeavor too with UGA extension is look to see where there are issues or problems and try to see who has something at UGA that can help those producers, produce.

Q: * Do you encourage a lot of community involvement in terms of getting members of the community to start their own facilities?*

Jeff Miller: Yes, We are getting started, I am not sure where the university is on vertical farming. But we have been doing a lot of work with greenhouses and indoor growing. Vertical Farming, I do not know where we are with that yet. My job is I try to find opportunities where we can sort of leverage what we do best which is education by helping people that are spending the money. It has been a really cool conference, I really enjoyed it.

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Q: What brings you to Aglanta?

Steve Williams: We are here representing a new division of our company called Tower Farms. It was our first kind of dipping our toes into the arena of the vertical farming association and Aglanta event so we had a blast actually.

Q: What inspried Tower Farms?

Steve Williams: Well we have been selling a residential tower garden for the last four and a half years and we have seen the need to do that on a larger scale so we actually acquired the commercial side or the Tower Farms version from a company about 6 months ago.

Q: Do you have any highlights from the weekend, anything that stood out?

Steve Williams: Well I enjoyed Steven Ritz like everybody else. We have a relationship with Steven with our company so he is a great spokesperson for all of us. He is really inspiring. Just being around all the like minded people was good for me. I really enjoyed hanging out and talking to people who think like I do.

Q: Coming away from this experience, what will you take away with you and what are you most excited about moving forward?

Steve Williams: Well, again, the endless possibilities. I think we’re just starting to capture what’s going to happen. I mean it’s been out there for a while but I think everyone is starting to realize it. We’re going to move into the next stage quicker than I had expected. So I am excited about that.

 

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Gene Giacomelli: I am Gene Giacomelli , The Director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona and in more I am the professor in the agricultural and biosystems engineering department.

Q: What brings you to Aglanta Conference?

Gene Giacomelli: I saw this as an opportunity that the conference was bringing together very unique people. Not just in Georgia, though i knew some of them in advance, but others that I would have the opportunity to meet. So really it is a networking thing and farming in general is becoming very popular among the young people, certainly the milllineals and I see this vertical farming, indoor farming, in buildings or in greenhouses using the sun as well, will become a major component of production agriculture in the United States. It is growing very quickly. Developing very quickly. There is a fifty percent chance that if you ate a tomato yesterday that it came from a greenhouse controlled environment. Fresh tomato. That’s the market penetration. Actually some people say it is sixty percent. Ok, I’m a little conservative *laughs*.

Q: Where do you see vertical farming headed in the next five to ten years?

Gene Giacomelli: The market will help guarantee that but groups like this (Aglanta) will help support it (vertical farming) from behind and underneath to make it (vertical farming) go. Ultimately the sustainability of any of these systems, yes of course the technology has to work, but there has to be that market that can feed back the economy to keep it operational, keep it sustainable. I think long term there will be fallout of course in any new industry but that there will be stable ones in areas where it just makes so much sense. The man who spoke about the projects in the South Bronx. The true food deserts can make a lot of sense for this. Areas where the environment is so extreme. I’m talking world wide now, like in the middle east where you can’t grow outside in the open field and even greenhouses use too much water. Put it (agriculture) in a building, it (vertical farming) could make sense there. Some of our work is, we have a unit growing fresh vegetables in the south pole in Antarctica because six months out of the year the airplanes cannot fly in so there are no fresh veggies and there never have been until 2004 when we built it and demonstrated and it is still operational. Long term, we have projects in Arizona on growing vegetables on the Moon and Mars. So the Mars-Lunar greenhouse is in development. So there is a long way to go but there are some shorter term goals like in the cities and in the suburbs and there will still be the traditional farms outs west. The big outdoor farms in the southeast and the northeast. They will all compliment one another.

Q: You flew all the way out here to Atlanta. What is it that drives you that makes you so passionate about controlled environment agriculture?

Gene Giacomelli: Well it is the program that has been developed at Arizona and my colleagues and the students I see their passion. And a long time ago I fell in love with greenhouses. The first one I walked into in 1975 that as an engineer I had the ability to make this environment that would produce a plant any time of the year. I didn’t have to worry about season any longer. And I came from a small farm background so I appreciated how plants grow and what they can do for you. And I like to eat good food so these are all really good reasons ultimately it is the combination of them. And one thing that I probably say too much is that this technology for the first time in the history of the world is offering people, anyone, who has that passion to get into production agriculture. Where before this without a greenhouse, or a growth room, and without hydroponics, you had to have a big farm and a lot of land. You don’t necessarily need that anymore to be a producer, to be a grower and to support life on earth by growing food. That is major change and I don’t think it will go away. It’s going to be here now it is apart of our production.

 

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Q: If you could introduce your name, background, and where you are from?

Matt Leotta: I’m Matt Leotta, I founded Pondponics in 2010 here in Atlanta. We grew to be on of the largest urban, vertical farms in the world.

Q: What brought you to Aglanta?

Matt Leotta: Well I was asked to participate on a panel to share some of our (Pondponics) experiences on unfortunately the failure side, what went wrong to help people understand from our mistakes so they could learn. I think that any type of new industry there is always going to be mistakes, there is always going to be learnings and what we needed to tell you as a community is to lean on each others mistakes and successes to move everyone forward.

Q: Coming from your standpoint as someone who has already progressed through the initial ups and downs, where do you see the industry headed in five to ten years?

Matt Leotta: I think it is still so early in the industry it is very hard to predict what five to ten years from now is going to be. I think that we are still looking for the big success story that validates to everybody that this is real. You know alot of people point to big success stories as in someone raising alot of money or building a big thing or has the cool renderings of what they;re going to do and it is all very forward looking. I think that once we really have tangible success where we say “hey, that company is profitable, that company is doing well, they changed their community”.I think that’s when this will feel very real and people will know that it’s achievable. I think people believe that it is achievable but we don’t have that tangible proof that we need to make this more than a science project in many people’s eyes.

Q: Where does your passion in the industry come from?

Matt Leotta: Well I have always been a tech person. I’ve spent a lot of time at a lot of different companies over the years doing technology. For me, one of the things that I came to the conclusion of personally is that I wanted the tech to be more than some “Gee-Wiz, Gizmo thing that is entertaining or maybe productive. I wanted it (technology) to make an impact on people and actually improve society. So I thought about where that could be and I realized that we could use technology to disrupt the problems in the food system and make that food system better that would actually not only be very interesting from a technology perspective but make a fundamental difference. I thought that would be an interesting way to take my experience and expertise in technology.

Q: Do you have a highlight of Aglanta? Anything that stood out like “Wow that was awesome!”.

Matt Leotta: Well I think the biggest thing that stood out to me is really seeing the number of people here and the enthusiasm for it. I remember seven years ago when we first started, knowing what we had to go through to get started. Knowing what the enthusiasm level was which was basically non-existent and to see it now it’s nice. It’s really exciting to know that the industry has progressed and that people have embraced it and are working to move it forward.