Spending the day at Asheville Urban Farms is deceptive. It is much more than a purveyor of fresh wheatgrass for Green Sage, or a supplier of basil for Strada restaurant, or kale for Tupelo Honey. It is a giant laboratory for learning to grow food, in what, for most of us, appears to be an unconventional way. Hydroponic farming is also good news for people in various states of emergency, when food sources must be developed rapidly, but because of war, or natural disasters like a tsunami, a flood, or a hurricane, traditional agricultural methods may not be functional. Anthony Coggiola, the Chief Executive Officer of Asheville Urban Farms, the Chief Operating Officer, Bill Muller, and restaurateur Sherrye Coggiola, Director of Sales and Marketing, all work in tandem. They contribute to the innovative and lush production of “towers” of vegetables grown at their headquarters on Amboy Road, within 2.5 miles of downtown Asheville. Some of those greens you eat at local restaurants were picked within hours of consumption, and they are, truly, “local.” As Anthony Coggiola says, “I cut these greens 40 minutes before they arrive at a restaurant.”
Coggiola speaks to the viability of urban farming because, as he says, “The population of the United States is 83% urban. Food costs will go up 120 to 180% by 2030.” Although Asheville Urban Farms has targeted restaurants with which they conduct business, he’s aware that since those are wholesale bulk buyers, he isn’t getting the best price point. However, he acknowledges Asheville is a tourism town, “so we’re considered a local service industry. There are a large percentage of independent restaurants here and we can help stabilize costs for their produce.”
Asheville Urban Farms can switch crops in 4 weeks, and provide crops during the winter months when local farms aren’t producing. However, they won’t put themselves into competition with local farmers. This enterprise has a mission, and sustainability and community support are central to it. For example, they won’t grow tomatoes during the outdoor growing season but will grow heirloom tomatoes in winter at the hydroponic farm. Incidentally, he reveals that 80% of the tomatoes consumed in the US are grown in Florida and California. We move out of the office areas and into 10,000 square feet of open space, which contain various plastic-tented greenhouses. Anthony begins describing three types of hydroponic systems. In the first, the ebb and flow system, seed is planted in a small plug of reconstituted bark. The bark sits in a shallow tray of water, and absorbs water, which is actually an AUF produced compost “tea” rich in nutrients. The bark wicks nutrients in a solution of highly aerated water; the seedlings and tray sit under a specifically selected light source producing rapid plant development. The entire system depends on electrical energy. An AUF goal is at some point to supply the electrical energy via solar panels. The second hydroponic method employed at the farm is a deep-water raft system. Three inch plastic net cups are filled with hydro corn, which are kiln-fired clay “pebbles.” The hydro corn supports the root system; the roots grow down and throughout the bark plugs, eventually reaching the liquid nutrient below the raft, rather than spreading outward as they would in soil. The net cups float in 3 inch cubbyholes spread throughout large floating rafts of a non-harmful “foam.”
Along the length of the raft I can see kale, arugula, marigolds, and Swiss chard and basil seedlings. Asheville Urban Farms employs exacting methods, checking micro-activity in their lab twice daily. Microorganisms in the compost tea they produce consume amino acids and sugars made by the plants’ roots, and expel a rich source of nitrogen and other essential nutrients. Dr. Elaine Ingham, Chief Scientist at Rodale Institute, is one of a group of valued consultants AUF uses; she is one of the leading soil biologists in the world. I understand now that there is an enormous amount of chemistry involved in this undertaking; even the subject of compost tea is complex. Compost needs to undergo a thermophylic heating process to purify it, regardless if it is plant material, fish or animal waste; this renders the fine black soil fit for tea brewing. The third type of hydroponic system is a rotary carousel system, which I find fascinating. A food grade plastic wheel, rather like looking inside a huge rotating clothes dryer, rotates around a central light source every hour. This rotary system, in which the light source is within optimum distance from the plant, and is on 18 hours per day, encourages plants to produce a heavy leaf volume and a very short stock. As the wheel rotates through, a reservoir directly under the wheel circulates an aerated nutrient solution. I am looking at a space age, self-contained growing machine! As I climb the stairs of one of the six three tiered hydroponic “towers,” I’m aware that although some of the equipment has been purchased as store-bought systems, most of the growing systems occupying this large warehouse were designed and built out of low cost locally sourced materials, under the direction of COO Bill Muller, who has extensive engineering background, along with a master’s degree in underwater archaeology and 20 years of construction and design background. Each of the “greenhouse towers” has 3 vertical levels and reaches a height of 14 feet, with 6 forty foot troughs in each of the 6 towers. In the “micro climates” created behind “Japanese” style sliding panels, air movement and exchange, water circulation, and the constant monitoring of humidity, temperature, and nutrients are tightly controlled. Humidity averages 70% and the temperature is controlled within a range from 65 to 75 degrees. It feels like night air in the Caribbean. In each of the 18 forty foot long troughs, a nutrient level of at least 4 inches, equating to just over 300 gallons, is maintained. AUF grows 500 to 600 plants in each level, for a total plant potential of over 10,000 plants. This urban farm has created the perfect environment for rapid plant growth. Beneficial ladybugs and lacewings fly throughout, along with pest repelling marigolds, borage and lavender, all working to mitigate any pests and aid in pollination. I’m looking at dense rows of kale being grown for Tupelo Honey restaurant. Alongside the greenhouse towers are giant white plastic vats, originally containing olive oil, that now serve as compost tea brewers supplying the grow towers with recirculating nutrients. We move to another “tent” greenhouse within the vast expanse of the building, and I taste handfuls of various micro-greens. It’s like eating the essence of a plant, an explosive and charged tasting of arugula, sunflower, cressida, mustard or bok choy, very different from the less powerful “normal” taste of these plants. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, the “liqueur” or serum of taste. Chefs call for mild or spicy mixes, and they can order custom micro green blends on a ten-day growing cycle. We are really eating the seedlings of these plants. Next, we move to the tent designated for growing large volumes of wheat grass for Green Sage restaurant. Within seven days the wheat grass seeds grow into a thick lush matte of tasty green grass. AUF is also looking at this system to grow year round fodder as a livestock food supplement. A hydroponic farm can produce winter grasses for cattle or horses to the tune of a half-ton a week in the grass unit towers. The numerous benefits to livestock, in addition to cost savings for feed, include ease of digestion and high levels of vitamins and minerals that augment the typical feeding of grass or corn.In another tent I walk through the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) systems growing Swiss chard and Locinato “Dinosaur” kale, and Genovese basil for Tupelo Honey and Strada. The plants produce rapid growth and their leaves are harvested every 2 – 3 weeks, but the root systems, the plants themselves, stay alive and can remain productive thru 6 harvests before new plantings are required. Only their leaves are taken. I also taste the exquisite lemon basil. When I ask about the actual production costs, Anthony informs me of the distribution costs they are able to circumvent, because they sell direct and that they provide products at a stabilized cost during non-growing seasons. Restaurants are able to remove themselves from a chain of supply over which they have little control.
Usually regional consolidators collect agricultural products that are brought to a distribution center, and are next moved through food distributors, and finally brought to the consumer’s table weeks later. Involved are the fuel costs, the refrigeration costs, and all the “hidden” costs I never think of when I buy a bunch of kale at a supermarket. For example, Randy Talley, of Green Sage, always wanted to be able to offer fresh pressed wheatgrass juice, but costs were prohibitive. He told Coggiola, “You helped put more green into Green Sage.”Asheville Urban Farms not only produces lush foodstuffs, they also employ 11 people thus far and expect to double their employment figures in a year. Three of those 11 employees are from the Arc of North Carolina organization, which assists mentally or physically handicapped people with job placement.
Like so many exceptional entrepreneurs around Asheville, Anthony Coggiola’s vision is one of integration, contribution, and community, rather than simply a “bottom line.” As for Marketing Director Sherrye Coggiola, there are two crucial levels of meaning to her work, the first is to provide “hyper-local produce,” and the second is provide for “folks who can’t get fresh produce.” Asheville Urban Farms works with local food charities, including Green Opportunities and Children First, to provide produce at no or very low cost. Part of this vision is to provide food to local sellers, who create micro-businesses, CSAs (community supported agriculture), with produce they can resell, which creates enterprise businesses and jobs. This is becoming the new paradigm in business, and it seems to be taking root in Asheville.
Research & Development
Although they only started to build the farm in June of 2012, Anthony and Bill spent numerous years in research. Both Bill Muller and Anthony Coggiola were faculty members at Texas A&M University. Coggiola left in 1998 and went into corporate business, first as the National Director of a company that specialized in insuring, servicing and maintaining medical equipment, then at Johnson Controls Company, specializing in the theatre of critical care, where hospitals must maintain surgical sites at certain levels of humidity, temperatures, redundancies and air quality. Suddenly these tented greenhouses bear a resemblance to the laboratories of critical care.
Coggiola’s story begins with his attendance at Christ School, the boarding school in Asheville where he spent his high school years and met his sweetheart and future wife, Sherrye, who grew up in Asheville. He refers reverently to the “profound values, ethos and education” instilled in him at Christ School. As Coggiola reveals to me, it took him 29 years and a “bunch of different jobs to become relevant, based on experiences and knowledge in multiple disciplines and different walks of life.” He says he feels exceptionally capable in leading highly skilled results-oriented teams, and insists that “Bill Muller possesses technical skills that far exceed mine: he has two Masters degrees and worked for the Army Corps of Engineers mapping the Mississippi River and later as a technical design engineer at NASA.” He and Bill, both Army combat veterans, met in 2008 at freshman day orientation at the Asheville School, which both their daughters attended. They are currently in talks with a group of Cherokee businessmen, and have also been consulting with a large estate property in Asheville. It appears that I’m speaking with a CEO who clearly has a much broader vision than just profits in selling vegetables, and who tells me that what “drives him is his faith” and the pleasure of doing difficult jobs correctly because they should be done that way. On Anthony Coggiola’s office walls there are photographs of Bill Muller and himself with officials from far-away places like Kurdistan and Romania. Both of these men have been involved in international work, acting as business development liaisons for US companies, in places like North Angola, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Coggiola was brought to Africa to consult with Angolan businessmen, government officials and entrepreneurs to help revitalize a region rich in agricultural history, but recovering from a long civil war and former communist rule that destroyed their agricultural capabilities. In Angola, 67% of the once agrarian population has migrated to the cities. Anthony Coggiola was involved in supporting the development of food production, and thus, jobs. He was formerly in the U.S. army, both active and reserve, for 13 years. Before he left the military in 1998 he specialized in bringing in high performance logistical support teams to rebuild infrastructure. On the way to normalizing relations before and during a conflict, civilians, as well as troops, need power, water, and food, and he worked to create platforms for rebuilding war-torn and emerging societies; working with the governors of tribal groups, in places where there might not even be a US Embassy. He worked with village elders, bringing in engineers and others, to consult on formal projects, often involving clean water. His teams were concerned with good quality plant growth, affected by water systems, as well as medical needs and water quality issues. Given the high heat in the Middle East, temperatures over 100 degrees, for example, irrigation is complicated. Traditional food crops include sorghum, rye or wheat. One solution is to move growing indoors, as has been done in Kurdish Iraq. In the capital of Erbil, which is so old it is referenced in Biblical passages as Mesopotamia or Babylon, he went back, with the blessing of the US government, in 2006 to help establish agricultural businesses. He worked with the Barzani tribe to present solutions and alleviate their food emergency situation. “Iraq imports over 80% of its food supply.” When a country’s people are without food, Coggiola asserts, there are three possible outcomes in food emergency situations: they will revolt, they will become refugees, or they will die. As Coggiola states, “Food is the lynchpin for a stable government.” The United States government encouraged American businesses to put together proposals for assistance. Mueller and Coggiola were the lead consultants of C3L Associates, a 100% Service Disabled Veteran Owned Company, of which Coggiola was the Executive Director. (C3L means to Clarify, Connect, Create and Launch ideas) They have worked with a Dutch Company headquartered in Michigan, which developed automated feeding and waste systems for poultry as early as the 1920s. They specialize in intensive farming habitats. Coggiolia says, “However much I prefer the free-range habitats I’ve seen in this area, I am sympathetic to the realities of peoples going without food. There are very high costs for these large systems, and C3L Associates worked with small business owners to help them. As Coggiola asserts, “Financing is tricky in unstable countries, places like Kurdistan, where people want to develop food systems to supply yogurt, milk and cheese; they just want to run their own business.” Coggiola showed me photos of a sad looking poultry farmer, whose chickens were falling ill from disease and the farmer had no way of understanding why. They had a deadly poultry disease called Newcastle. Normally you can treat and retain 60% of your birds, but this man lost 60% of his birds, a situation Coggiola describes as “heartbreaking.” The chicken farm owner had been a guerilla fighter against Saddam Hussein, and he was a hero to his people, but he had been tortured under the dictator’s rule. C3L Associates worked with Iraqi businesses to bring together farm solutions to avoid further destabilization. As he says, “We specialize in the difficult.” Working in Iraq, C3L came up with a model for extended farming, community supported agriculture to provide jobs, and a food distribution system. They met with ministers of agriculture, finance and education. Their projects involved demonstration farms, to reintroduce proteins like poultry and fish, eggs and fish being the simplest proteins to produce, broilers more difficult. Tilapia, for example, remediates water; as they eat algae they clean water. There is a symbiotic relationship between fish plants and fish waste. Anthony speaks about fish farming or hydroponic farming that was done as far back as1500 BC. I’m astonished to realize the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were water terraces. Coggiola went on to explain the repercussions of chicken farming losses. In a 2012 tornado in Alabama, 5 million chickens were killed. He illustrates the loss by asking me to multiply that figure of 5 million by the 325 eggs a year that a hen can customarily produce. Hens lay on average 94 eggs on a hundred day cycle. Weather is intrinsic to farming, and he outlines the effect of the loss cycle: people who work in processing, people who consume the eggs, as individuals, and in restaurants, and the steps from processing to bank payments. During the 2010 Exxon oil spill, Anthony Coggiola asserts, the estuaries were clogged with oil. “The estuary is a lymph node of the earth; plankton lives in the canes and grasses the oil settles in.” One solution is to use a composter in their lab to breed micro-organisms that will eat oil. “We delivered burlap sacks filled with micro-organisms bred to eat oil.”
As CEO, Anthony Coggiola finds people and cultivates talent, those who can implement change. He speaks to the natural processes used in traditional, sustainable farming, including the composting process. He speaks to the interdependence of animals and pastureland, as opposed to mono-crop methods. Cows eat the grass; pigs root up bulbs and till the ground; chicken put ammonia into the soil. They have also been involved in rainwater harvesting, and solar distillation processes for filtering water. He addresses the problem of food deserts in the United States. He describes how we contaminate the water and create food deserts in water-abundant areas. In New York or Chicago or Baltimore, industrial run-offs means that no food can be grown, so the farm is farther away from the people it feeds. In Urban Farming, people employ rainwater harvesting, and they grow indoors 365 days a year, using 90% less water for the same yield. The knowledge, techniques, and systems of Asheville Urban Farms can be franchised, and AUF will continue to be involved in any such franchises.
In Asheville, ironically, only 10% of the food we consume has been grown within a hundred mile radius. According to Anthony Coggiola, ‘’This market is underserved by locally produced foods. As an entrepreneur there’s an opportunity here using a community-based model.” Asheville Urban Farms is a resource: an agricultural extension service, a demo farm and a youth services center. Through the Youth Chamber of Commerce they will provide a group class for high-school students to learn about multidisciplinary careers in agri-farming. I spoke with Justin Arends, employed through the ARC of NC program, which supports statewide employment for individuals with disabilities. He has been responsible for data entry since October 2012, and he likes working at Asheville Urban Farms because as he says, “People around here are willing to help and support us.”