Boot Camp Farms, based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, was created by CEO and founder Antonio St. Lorenzo to improve the quality of life on several fronts: job creation for veterans, transforming blighted areas into innovative state-of-the-art farming, local economic improvement (and beyond), and year-round accessibility to affordable healthy food, to name a few.
As a part of the Bridgeport-Fairfield leg of the Startup Roadshow, we talked with Sean Richardson, Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder. Mr. Richardson has more than 20 years of experience as an attorney and senior technology and media executive.
How did the idea of turning four acres of notorious brownfields into large-scale, local agriculture come about? And why Bridgeport?
Until about three years ago, Antonio and I had concentrated on finding housing for veterans, especially the young women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Antonio called me very early one morning before we went to the office and said, “We are buying a farm.” Since we are both from New York City, I honestly thought he was joking. He wasn’t. The veterans we had been helping were grateful for a place to rest their heads but they kept telling Antonio that what they really needed was a job. He felt that farming was a perfect vocation for veterans – it was peaceful, since so many of our veterans suffer from PTSD – and it would help our country become less dependent on trucking in food from thousands of miles away and growing a sustainable agricultural economy.
Within a few hours, we were looking at a 40-acre organic dirt farm in Fairfield County. While the deal for that dirt farm fell through, as we did our due diligence on the farm, we became convinced that the greenhouses situated on the farm were the future of American farming and we turned our attention to finding a suitable site in Connecticut for a high tech urban farm. We looked at several sites across Connecticut but we settled on Bridgeport as the site of the first of Boot Camp Farms’ urban agriculture centers because Mayor Bill Finch made a personal and impassioned pitch for Bridgeport and its commitment to urban agriculture and sustainability.
The Urban Agriculture Center you are constructing will include an 80,000 square foot state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse producing about 160,000 heads of leafy greens and 6,000 pounds of tomatoes per month, amongst other produce. How is your hydroponics technology and construction different from others?
You are seeing a lot of movement in what I would call the “warehouse growing” or “vertical agriculture” space using fully automated growing systems. This type of growing is done with all artificial light indoors using robotic mechanisms to move the plants through the various stages of propagation. Boot Camp Farms has not taken this approach to high-tech urban farming. First, the scientists who don’t have a financial interest in this space will tell you that you are doing nothing to reduce the carbon footprint. By having to rely solely on artificial light, you are probably putting as much carbon into the atmosphere as you are saving by not having to drive the produce long distances. So, at best, this is a wash from a sustainability standpoint. Second, running an automated greenhouse doesn’t create a substantial number of jobs. We believe our model of building state-of-the-art greenhouses on the periphery of urban centers or rooftops is going to be proven to be the most attractive business model.
What makes our technology and construction different is our commitment to using only American materials, technology and labor. Thirty years ago hydroponic technology was still in its infancy with a lot of kinks to work out, but now it is a mature technology that is making incremental but important productivity gains. When we first started taking bids for the Bridgeport Urban Agriculture Center, we had the Chairman of a large greenhouse company from the Netherlands fly in to make a presentation. The conventional wisdom is that the Dutch make the most advanced greenhouses and hydroponic systems. When we started asking hard questions, we learned that the glass and steel came from China and that the supervisory and construction labor would be European and Latin American.
Antonio and I believe very strongly that America has to get back to the WWII mentality where we build and grow what we need here in America. A country that can’t feed itself isn’t a sovereign country. We found a company based in Colorado, Nexus Greenhouse Systems that builds state-of-the-art greenhouses with American glass and steel using American labor and we decided to work with them. We also found a California-based company called American Hydroponics to provide the growing system. We believe that about 98% of the components in our greenhouses are American-made and we are dedicated to building a highly trained labor force of local veterans.
How are you partnering with the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture?
UConn has a great agriculture college that offers degrees in hydroponic farming. The Extension Program of UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources will train our greenhouse farmers and they will all earn a certificate in hydroponic farming from UConn.
Speaking of jobs, you mentioned that founder and CEO Antonio St. Lorenzo has been training veterans and citizens for 30 years. What does the job training program look like for this organization, and how will it be implemented?
Our certificate job training program with UConn will also be on-the-job training, so our workers will get the best of both worlds of academic and real world experience. This will allow us to grow the company organically, so to speak, and those farmers who prove themselves most capable will get the opportunity to become master growers in our new greenhouses as Boot Camp Farms expands.
What stage of development is the project currently in? What’s next?
In Bridgeport, we are currently in the remediation and construction phase. We expect to have the first phase of the Bridgeport farm completed by January 2015.
Also, as part of our new partnership with the Charles D Smith, Jr. Foundation, Boot Camp Farms is currently remodeling the Charles D Smith, Jr. Foundation Community Center just a few blocks away from the Urban Agriculture Center, where we will offer agriculture courses to the community and show local schoolchildren the benefits of sustainable agriculture. As part of the Company’s commitment to giving back to community, we will also be feeding those in need at the Community Center and then we will construct a subsidized retail center on the Bridgeport site to help alleviate the food desert in the East End of Bridgeport. In addition to creating dozens of jobs, the Bridgeport Urban Agriculture Center will be a model of sustainability by recycling at least 90% of the water used for growing and requiring no pesticides.
We are currently in negotiations with several municipalities and private landowners and expect to construct an additional six Urban Agriculture Centers in Connecticut over the next three years, as well as implement a national rollout of state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouses in urban areas.
You’ve only been in Connecticut for three years. What has the experience been like to ramp up this effort? Any advice you can share for other entrepreneurs who are starting and scaling up in our state?
Connecticut is a challenging environment for entrepeneurs but the commitment from the State and local municipalities to grow the local economy is there. There is also plenty of capital here and, of course, a tremendous number of educated and driven people. We don’t have the built-in financial and knowledge infrastructure of Silicon Valley in Northern California or of New York City, but Antonio and I have traveled the state meeting officials at every level, as well as other business owners who are committed to grow their businesses in Connecticut. Our experience here has largely been quite positive. Of course everyone says they want to attract new business and create jobs, but you can’t just wave a magic wand and expect they will come. You have to build a team of professionals to attract business and make them want to stay. It really is all about trust and relationships.
The best advice I can give to other entrepreneurs is to not take “no” for an answer. Keep pushing forward to find the best team you can to build your company and attract the capital you need to keep it growing.