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Thursday 26 April 2018

Is vertical farming the new growth area for the sector?

‘If there is anyone who wants to talk to us about starting a wheat or barley grass farm – we are listening’

Jillian Godsil

The founder of The Little Pharma, which produces and sells fresh barley and wheatgrass juice shots says growing barley and wheatgrass presents real opportunities for farming partners

Darren Ducoté, one half of the partnership behind The Little Pharma, which produces fresh barley and wheatgrass juiced shots for consumption as a health food.

Hydroponics is the practice of growing crops with water alone, and such farms are an elaborate sequence of trays and regulated water sluices.

"Currently we are growing seven systems of wheat and barley grass, but we want to increase that to 140 by the end of the year," says Ducoté.

"And if we could find farmers that would take on the production we’d get into conversations directly. We are so busy – we could increase our capacity 20 fold to meet demand if we had space/farming partners."

With previous knowledge of retail hydroponic methods, Ducoté and his partner Amanda Swan, moved from retail into actual hydroponic farming when an illness changed their lives.

Ducoté had run a Hydroponic Equipment Supply store in Dublin. He ran the store for three years and gained an indepth knowledge of the industry over this time.

In 2014, his partner had suffered from a slipped disc and trapped sciatic nerve and they began exploring alternative pain relief methods. After enjoying initial success and better health, Ducoté began to experiment with different food stuffs and very soon stumbled across wheat grass which has huge nutritional benefits.

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"We started growing it, juicing it and taking every day. It made a huge difference to how we felt. We grew it and juiced it on a daily basis."

Soon, Ducoté was sharing the wheatgrass with family and friends. Everyone raved about it.

The next step was to grow the wheat grass in trays and harvest it. Ducoté starting selling bags of harvested wheatgrass firstly in his own shop and then extended to other local shops. However, the main problem was that product had a very short shelf life, and not very convenient to store.

"We began to do more research," explains Ducoté.

“I discovered High Pressure Pasteurisation (HPP) as a natural way to extend the life of the juiced product. HPP exerts enough pressure as if the juice was 30km under water. It maintains all the essential goodness of the wheat grass juice while preserving it."

Ducoté worked with a team in AFBI, the Agri Food & Bioscience Institute, in Belfast to research and develop the best way to extend the shelflife of the wheat grass juice over a nine month period. Following that he applied for and was accepted onto the Food Academy, a business programme run by Bord Bia, Musgraves and the LEO offices.

"We had our first listing with SuperValu and so we had to get serious."

Ducoté needed to rapidly increase his wheat grass – and barley grass – production. He had little finance so he found a building to lease in Ballymount and set about building his first vertical farm, which is the practice of producing food and crops in vertical stacked layers. He bought gutters, trays and pipes and made the farm himself. 

All product is produced from organic and GMO free seed and the water has to be cleaned before it is used, removing additives such as Fluoride and other impurities.

The wheat grass and barley grass is grown in hydroponic trays. At first seeds are planted in trays – without soil – and a complex system of water management provides the appropriate quantities. The plants grow in a completely controlled environment (temperature, humidity etc) which Ducoté and his wife have perfected over the years.

Wheat grass typically takes 14 days from planting to harvest, which allows for two harvests per month. Ducoté and his partner harvest the grass by hand, putting it through juicers before bringing it to HPP Tolling a facility near the airport that has a HPP machine. They return the bottled shots – in 30ml measures – and Ducoté and Swan hand label the bottles. In a single month they currently produce some 7000 bottles.

Initially, Ducoté bought domestic juicers – six in total – and hand juiced all the harvest. Last year, after showing income, they were able to purchase a cold press industrial juicer which renders this task much easier.

"We also purchased a machine to wash the trays – again the banks could see our turnover and we were able to borrow to buy this machine."

It makes a huge difference where before it could take three days to manually wash everything between harvests, he says.

Business is growing fast. Last month, Ducoté dropped off three boxes of the grass shots to a local shop. The owner rang him three days later looking for more. "At first I did not understand," says Ducoté.

“That should have been enough to last the month but the manger told him people were buying a month’s supply in one go. That’s when I knew we were at the tipping point," he says.

This has been an incredible journey for Ducoté and Swan. With three young children they have grown the business organically. The vertical farm was built by hand and each advancement has been hard earned.

"Now we are looking for investment for scaling and in the short term farming partners, or wanna-be farmers, to help us grow more wheat and barley grass," he says.

"We can help them with the development of the organic farm. And we will buy their harvest.

“This is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a growth business."


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