In the restaurant world, it has become a selling point to say that you serve locally grown produce. A new startup called Dallas Urban Farms intends to make that local very local, as in rooftops across Dallas.
This mom-and-pop company uses a unique "aeroponic" system in which plants are grown in an air or mist environment that uses no soil. The plants sit on vertical towers and subsist on water and nutrients that are pumped through the tower.
Dallas Urban Farms is the brainchild of Jody Thompson and Max Wall, who have recruited some powerful supporters, including Deep Ellum property owner Scott Rohrman, who has signed on to install growing towers on the rooftops of his buildings, and Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank star Mark Cuban, who recently became an equity investor.
Thompson says their goal is to make food easy to grow and "cleaner," without GMOs or pesticides. "One of the reasons we chose to grow with this technology is to eliminate the need for chemicals," she says. "I was trying to stick to organic food and started growing my own produce on my apartment balcony.
"I lost weight, and when I saw how much my health improved, I became inspired to do it on a larger scale."
Their system consists of 8-foot-tall towers that grow up to 44 plants apiece. They begin the plants as seedlings, then transfer them to the tower. Aside from trees or big woody plants like grapes, they can grow almost everything, from tomatoes to herbs to greens, and with a fraction of the water used in conventional farming.
"The system uses entirely water and air, and it presents nowhere near the challenges of growing with dirt," she says. "We use 90 percent less water than if you were growing in dirt. To grow a head of lettuce in dirt takes about 70 gallons of water. With this system, it takes three gallons."
Aeroponics and its cousin, hydroponics, are not a new technology. "They've been around for a long time, but there's a shift happening in our agricultural community across the country, because we're seeing the harmful effect that big agriculture and monocrops have on our resources and land," Thompson says.
Their first big corporate client is the Hilton Anatole hotel, where they're working with chef David Scalise to install a rooftop farm on September 6. Their basil is already going on the menu in the hotel's Caprese salad.
They'll also sell their produce at the Dallas Farmers Market and will subsequently launch a CSA, aka "community supported agriculture," where customers sign up to get regular "shares" of produce.
"We have tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, melons — all of these are currently growing," Thompson says. "We're also testing a crop of root vegetables with miniature beets, radishes, turnips, and carrots. They grow in the same growing medium in which we start our seedlings, and even without dirt, they grow perfectly. They're only constrained by size; they're smaller."
The system is less labor intensive to maintain. And aside from the environmental benefits, there are other, more obvious pleasures.
"It's interesting for people to taste these items," Thompson says. "Most of our food has changed from when we were young. It's picked unripe, packaged, shipped. When you're eating something you've just picked, the flavor is more intense."