If you’ve ever wondered about growing hydroponic produce and how to get into it, then you’ve come to the right place. We wanted to bring you a case study that describes not just the present day farm operations, but one that takes you to the very beginning. The beginning of starting a business and becoming a farmer. The beginning of a thought.
Many of us have dreamt about working for ourselves or starting from scratch and creating something special or being known as an expert in a particular industry or craft. But when the excitement wears off, even though we’re eager to get started, there are so many questions looming in our heads and it is often difficult to sort them out.
What does it take? How long is the journey? Can anyone do it or do you need a specific skill set? These are some of the questions we get frequently from all those aspiring to be indoor farmers. Our job is to help you get there. So let’s dive in and explore the ins and outs of starting your very own, hydroponic, containerized indoor farm.
Partnership produces hydroponic greens in the Aleutians
800 miles southwest of Anchorage lies Unalaska, a city of 4,500 residents located on Alaska’s remote Aleutian Island chain. The city, best known for its fishing industry, is now being celebrated for its locally grown produce. In 2017, The Aleutian Housing Authority (AHA), a non-profit organization who primarily provides affordable housing, and Blaine Shaishnikoff, a Qawalangin Tribal Member and nearly lifelong Unalaska resident, formed a new partnership to grow and sell local hydroponic produce. That is how Aleutian Greens LLC was born.
Located in Unalaska, this innovative startup is using two sophisticated hydroponic growing systems from VH Hydroponics to supply the community with their first-ever, locally grown produce. Growing up in Unalaska, co-owner and operator Blaine, recognized the challenges his community faced with not having a reliable and sustainable food source. “Our people have lived here for thousands of years and have always provided for themselves by living a subsistence lifestyle. Providing my community and my region with a locally-grown, quality food source is something that I feel very strongly about and it is what we’re trying to do.”
In 2016 after participating in a local innovation competition, Blaine began talking with AHA Executive Director, Dan Duame, who was also considering a hydroponic growing system in the region after attending a VH Hydroponics seminar during the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference (SWAMC). “I was interested in doing a project like this for some time, but realized that to be successful, we would need a strong local partner. After talking with Blaine it did not take long to realize that he had the potential to be that partner and it was the right time to do it,” said Dan.
Their conversations sprouted into a partnership in early 2017, and after receiving approval from a very supportive AHA Board of Commissioners, they teamed with VH Hydroponics (VHH) to design and build two Containerized Growing Systems (CGS) out of 40-foot shipping containers.
Manufacturing and transportation
The high-tech units were constructed in a 120,000 sq foot facility by CXT, a leading modular building manufacturer based in Spokane, Washington. The overall timeline from down payment in March to shipment in June took about 14 weeks. Aleutian Greens ordered 2 x 40 foot CGSs and 1 x 40 foot packing unit with a built-in commercial kitchen. VHH shipped the units from Spokane to Seattle. Aleutian Greens took charge of the second shipping leg from Seattle to Dutch Harbor, and negotiated all pricing and schedules with Coastal Transportation. The units arrived in Unalaska on July 1st, 2017.
Grow system capability
Each CGS is capable of producing 450 mature heads of leafy greens and culinary herbs per week. The hydroponic method allows for a much shorter growing cycle than traditional farming – as short as five to six weeks – and is not restricted by weather or seasons. The unit is also fully automated, which reduces the man-hours required to monitor the crops. The adaptable and scalable planting schedules allow for customized harvests that can be scheduled weekly, depending on customer requests. The growing environment is optimal for producing a consistent, quality, nutrient-rich product that is pesticide and GMO free. Growing hydroponic produce in the Arctic requires special build considerations. The CGS is professionally engineered and is rated from -60 degrees to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Installing a hydroponic farm requires site and ground prep, such as lot leveling, installing utilities and a few other optional choices. Clients can choose to work with a professional or they may perform a few tasks themselves, given they have the proper equipment, experience and credentials. In this case, with the assistance of his family’s rock and gravel company, Blaine was able to use their machinery to perform all the ground preparations. Blaine has a CDL and operated all the heavy equipment on his own. Working closely with the city, he was able to fill the lot, put in a sewer line (this is not a requirement of the CGS installation) and flatten the pad. A local contractor installed the electrical. AHA owns the land that the 3 units sit on and in the true spirit of partnership, they have built the foundation for a successful hydroponic farm.
Installation and first harvest
VHH arrival on site was delayed by about 2 weeks due to site prep, but once there, the installation was a smooth process. VHH remained on site for about two weeks, which allowed for a full installation, QA/QC process, training of primary personnel and the first planting. The installation was finished on 8/17/2017 and the first harvest arrived on 9/23/2017, which was actually overgrown. Aleutian Greens ended up giving it all away, which created a nice buzz in the community and garnered support for the new business. Upon VHH departure, Blaine had a good comfort level with operating the equipment with his wife. A testament to that was his ability to leave for a week on a family emergency while someone else took care of the grow units without incident.
Growing Hydroponic Produce Indoors
Mr. Duame retired from his position as AHA Executive Director in late June and handed the operation over to Deputy Director, Erin Wilson. “We’re known for providing affordable housing in our region, but this venture reinforces our mission of also being a major generator of economic development. Growing up in King Cove, we didn’t always have access to fresh, quality foods. Our hope is to reduce our region’s reliance on shipped produce and supply our people with the first ever, locally grown food source,” she stated.
In late September, the company distributed their first harvest of nearly two thousand crops featuring “Unalaska Grown” butterhead and green leaf lettuces, kale, mizuna, arugula, basil, Thai basil and dill to residents and businesses throughout the community. Boxes of the locally grown produce also made their way to the communities of Akutan, Cold Bay and King Cove aboard the ferry M/V Tustumena, on its last Aleutian voyage of the year. “We’ve had a real good response! Everyone is excited about the taste and the freshness and they keep asking us where they can buy it,” said Blaine.
What’s growing and what’s popular?
Aleutian Greens has grown a variety of leafy greens: Arugula, Thai basil, bok choy, cilantro, kale, butterhead lettuce, green leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, salanova lettuce, parsley, mizuna, chives, sorell, mint. As of this writing, Green Leaf lettuce was a big seller, but Romaine – not so much.
Aleutian Greens seeds every Saturday and harvests on Friday and Saturday. They also do a special harvest on Friday. It takes 6 weeks from seed to maturity for everything they’ve grown so far, except for mizuna, which takes 5 weeks. Germination rate is in the 90th percentile.
Selling hydroponic produce
Aleutian Greens is selling to numerous local restaurants. In January 2018, The Alaska Ship Supply began selling Aleutian Greens’ locally grown produce in their store. The Alaska Ship Supply is Unalaska’s premier retailer for the community and the commercial fishing industry. The Alaska Ship Supply sells everything from fishing supplies, to food, liquor, and clothing. This year, the store’s shelves became a lot greener. This new retail partnership has allowed Aleutian Greens to benefit from reliable and consistent demand, keeping business operations simple and overhead low.
As of this writing, Aleutian Greens are selling their produce at the following locations: The Grand Aleutian, Harbor View Grill, Airport Restaurant, Amelia’s, The Norwegian Rat Saloon, and Alaska Ship Supply. They are also selling branded merchandize at the Alaska Ship Supply.
Indoor farm customer acquisition process
Shortly after the first harvest, Aleutian Greens began selling to local restaurants. It was an easy process to get the restaurants to buy into both the value and quality offered. Places like Alaska Ship Supply were very skeptical at first – that is until they met Blaine and saw the growing facilities for themselves.
For Aleutian Greens, selling to a variety of places, especially those that require packaging was an early challenge. “We’ve had to experiment with a variety of produce packaging options to find the right solutions”, said Erin. They also didn’t want to add unnecessary plastic to the landfill, especially since they are on an island. However, biodegradable/recyclable packaging for such a small operation is extremely expensive and the order quantities are just too high. The same kind of experimentation had to be done with produce storage after harvests. They tested different plants in the cooler and worked with stores to try out a variety of storage solutions before the right product mixes and processes were developed.
Hydroponic produce demand
In the words of Erin Wilson: “People on the island like supporting local business, because we grow something that looks better than anything else, and we grow something that’s beautiful.” Erin also says that they’ve been blessed with a diverse population in Dutch Harbor that likes a variety of produce options.
Because Aleutian Greens is an agile operation, they can work with chefs in a variety of restaurants and grow to meet their demand. For example, Aleutian Greens is working with the chef at the Grand Aleutian Hotel. He wanted to try red mizuna, to add more color to the plates and Aleutian Greens was quickly able to respond to that demand.
As far as the taste, Erin said the following: “It’s really cool to see us on the menu in a nice restaurant. Everybody is happy. People really love it – I can’t say enough about it. I just fed it to our board members (Aleutian Housing Authority) and they loved it. The taste is phenomenal.”
Lastly, another critical factor that affects demand is the Shaishnikoff family. “They are the quintessential small business family”, said Erin. They have the spirit, drive, resourcefulness and dedication to make things happen. Thus, people in part buy Aleutian Greens produce because of Blaine and his family.
Growing hydroponic produce in Unalaska has been a great experience for Aleutian Greens, but maybe it’s time to look further. Aleutian Greens is considering their options to serve the surrounding communities of Atka, Akutan and Nikolski with the hope of ultimately serving all of the Aleutian and Pribilof Island communities. They can easily connect multiple containers to expand growing capacity to meet customer demand. Although there are nearly 800 miles between them, as partners, Blaine and Erin are dedicated to achieving their ultimate goal and their company’s mission: To enhance the health and well-being of our Aleutian residents by providing a locally-grown, sustainable source of fresh foods that are of the highest quality and nutritional value, year-round.
The Aleutian Greens community
The city of Unalaska is a hub for the American fishing industry. In fact, the city’s port of Dutch Harbor is the #1 fishing port in the United States by volume caught. Unalaska Island has a land area of 1,051 square miles, making it the 14th largest island in the United States. Throughout the year, Unalaska is home to 5,000-10,000 part-time residents working in the fishing industry. Year round, the population of Unalaska is about 4,376, according to the 2010 census.
For more context and info on hydroponic growing, check out our blog post on Starting an Indoor Farm Part 1
We hope this was helpful. If you have any questions about growing hydroponic produce, starting an indoor farm or our technology, don’t hesitate to email us at [email protected] or call 907-782-4420
To your health!
The team at VHH