Urban Farming Tips from Replantable: the hottest urban farming project on Kickstarter 

We interviewed co-founder Ruwan Subasinghe of Replantable to chat about urban farming tips,

the beginning of Replantable, and the Nanofarm, their new urban

farming project taking kickstarter by storm.

Urbab Farming Tips From Replantable

Patrick: Hey guys this is Patrick from Urban Vine and today I have a very special guest, we have Ruwan from Replantable, his company is developing new technology, a new product for growing mixed greens and some other exciting stuff, right in your kitchen, it's a minimalist design, it's meant to be an easy introduction for beginners, for people who may not be as experienced [with urban farming].

How are we doing Ruwan? Are you in Atlanta right now or you guys just got started in Atlanta? 

Ruwan: Yeah, in Atlanta right now, and I'm actually home at the moment but we have headquarters downtown in Atlanta and we actually manufacture the appliance here too.

Patrick: Cool, so I guess we could just get started, for people who may not be familiar with Replantable, or especially you and your co-founder, maybe you could talk about how the company started, how you personally got into Urban Farming, where you got introduced to it, and how you progressed.

Ruwan: Sure, so my co-founder and I, my co-founder's name is Alex, we met at Georgia Tech, we studied there, and we cooked a lot, pretty night every much, but, we were tired of our fresh ingredients going bad before we could get a chance to use them, and we wished there was a way to be able to just, pick fresh greens right as you're about to use them, but living in Atlanta, we really didn't have the space to do the backyard gardening, I had a tiny little plot but it really didn't get the right kind of light, and the soil back there, it's a city lot, so not optimal soil for growing.

So that's when we turned to hydroponics, really looking at hydroponics for a solution for urban agriculture, and that is when we started experimenting. We went to the local hydroponics store, and we cooked up  a homemade hydroponics unit with fluorescent tubes, and it was a deep water culture system, and yeah, that is kind of how we got started, and we kind of refined it until we got to where we are now.

Patrick: So for people who may not be as familiar, could you talk about what a fluorescent tube and some of the terms you mentioned are?

Ruwan: Sure, so when we were looking for grow lights we started with Amazon, where most searches start for products, but the fluorescents are just one type of bulb you can use to provide plants with the type of light that they need to grow.

Specifically, we used the ones marked as "Daylight", they just have a good spectrum of light for growing plants inside, and there are more professional options, like Sodium lights, metal halide lights, and now LEDs, and actually LEDs are what we use in our product, but we didn't really get into that at first. We started with off the shelf grow light.

Photo courtesy of Replantable

Patrick: Cool, so, for somebody who is kind of, just starting out, what kind of lights would say are best for them , and what do they really need to know, you mentioned how you went through this iterative process of exploring with these different lights and that kind of culminated in what is now your product on Kickstarter, which we will talk about very soon, but can you talk about  that process of figuring out what was best and maybe some tips for people who are just getting started.

Maybe somebody just wants to grow one lettuce plant on their fire escape or something, what are some good tips for somebody trying to do that?

Ruwan: Really it's as simple as going to the hardware store, you can buy one of those compact fluorescent tubes, you can buy one that is marked as "Daylight" you can screw it into one of those standing sockets, or like a clamplight or something, and point it at your plant, and the plants love that kind of light.

It sounds simple once you have figured that out, it's actually kind of hard because the spectrum is all invisible, you don't know, light looks like light to us, to plants they use mostly the red colored light or the blue colored light, and a bit of the ultraviolet and infrared spectrum too, so the spectrum that the bulb puts off is really important, for growing the food, but surprisingly, standard fluorescent will do it.

Patrick: As far as the, obviously at Replantable you guys are focusing on several different types of crops, and I know that that has been part of the design, to have a couple different options there, would suggest for somebody just starting out a certain type of crop? Like is there one that is easier than others or is there one that is especially easy, like, is it lettuce, or what do you think regarding that?

Ruwan: Lettuce specifically is really friendly to grow, it is a cool weather crop, so if you are growing in areas kind of on the warm side, you might want to try something like a Bok Choy, or something like that, but in general, salad greens are really easy to get to germinate, they grow super quickly, which is great for someone who is just starting off, because it is really encouraging to see results really quickly.

If you are trying to grow herbs, those are fairly easy to grow too, but have longer germination times, and the germination rate is lower, so you might plant some seeds and they never actually germinate at all.

Lettuce is an easy crop for beginner urban farmers to start off with

Patrick: Could you talk about the difference between growing outside and growing inside? I know that when we get to talking about urban farming, sometimes some people don't have an option to grow outside, or it may be way too cold outside, or there may be other factors, name your factor pretty much in a city, that forces you to grow inside, so how does that change your approach, and are there any easy mistakes there that you can make?

Ruwan: So with growing inside, you have the benefit of a controlled environment, so you don't have to worry about pests, you don't have to worry about the temperature being crazy high or crazy low, but there are some things that are easy to overlook inside, first, lighting, the sun is amazing, it is the original grower of light, it's amazing for growing food, so you really need to make sure you are replicating that type of useful light.

The second thing is ventilation, which often goes overlooked, because, inside you can have stagnant air, and, if the humidity builds up too much around the plant, it can actually suffocate the plant, and you know, keep that gas exchange from happening at the surface.

But these things are pretty easy to overcome, just set up a fan where you are growing, or even just make sure that your house fan is on.

But those are two big things, that can effect (plant growth) inside.

Patrick: So you're saying you could essentially just take a regular house fan, and you would kind of pooint it towards where you are growing, and that would suffice or what specifically is the set up there?

Ruwan: Yeah, you don't need to be rustling the leaves or anything, you just need to be moving air throughout the room. because plants will quickly get a high humidity area around them if the air is standing still.

Patrick: Obviously you are knowledgeable on this (subject), to such a degree that you created this product, I am curious to know, was it a trial and error process, or were there any books that you read, or were there any people that you talked to, or websites that you followed, I know there is a lot of good websites out there, could you talk about how you got this (urban farming) knowledge and how, if someone was also interested in becoming knowledgable, what would they do?

Ruwan: We got a lot of our knowledge by stopping by the local hydroponics shop, here in Atlanta thae one is Atlantis Hydroponics, but there is a lot of really good resources out there, there's (also) actually a lot of misinformation and partially true information out there, about hydroponics, and it's partly because people like to try different things, and it may work anecdotally, but overtime those may not really pan out.

We looked at a lot of, actually, papers.

Patrick: Like, academic papers?

Ruwan: Oh yeah, definitely, especially since NASA is looking into hydroponics a lot, they publish a lot of really good research on how to grow hydroponically, and also there's the farmer resources, if you look up, "farmer growing guides", there are a lot of growing guides for specific crops such as your lettuce, your tomatoes, the things that are really commonly grown hydroponically, there's a wealth of information about those things. If you start with growing those crops, there's a ton of information out there for farmers and hobby growers alike.

Patrick: That's specifically for people interested in hydroponic?

Ruwan: Right.

Patrick: Do you think hydroponic is any more challenging to start with or do in general than soil or what's the comparison there?

Ruwan: So I think that if you just want to buy a few things and get started quickly, soil is even easier, because a fertile soil is made for growing plants, hydroponics just gives you more control, so you can dial in certain factors, where, if you were soil growing, and your plant is having an issue, it is hard to diagnose sometimes what that could be, it could be a pest in the soil, it could be that a certain nutrient is low in the soil, with hydroponics you can kind of test and correct, but they are both great methods.

Patrick:  So essentially the key thing to remember here is hydroponics gives you a little bit more control.

Ruwan: Right, but at the same time you need to know what you are doing, you need to research the hydroponic set up, it is not as simple as "buy a few things and throw it together".

You need to have a pH tester, an EC Tester, which is electrical conductivity, that tells you how much nutrients are in the solution.

Patrick: So you would need an EC tester, and a pH pen.

Ruwan: Those are the 2 basic tools that you can get by on with hydroponics, but you have to know how to interpret the results, you need to know, what is too acidic or what is too basic for the water to be, and then, you have to keep the pH up or the pH down mix, so you can put it in there (the water) and correct.

Patrick: In the water?

Ruwan: Yeah, (you are measuring) in the actual water (for hydroponics).

Patrick: So, back to the narrative now, we kind of had this Q and A session here, so you meet your co-Founder at Georgia Tech, you have this problem, and what happens next?

Ruwan: So, like I told you, we cooked up our hydroponic system, at home, we're growing food, you know it's working, but then we thought, and this took months, it took months to get a system where we did not have to think about it too much, and we could grow food continuously, and we thought back on all the trial and error that we had to do, and that's when we thought that there should be something out there that someone can just plug in, and get going, and that is really the inspiration for our product,

Patrick: What were some of the early major mistakes that you made (in the product development)?

Ruwan: We made every mistake you could possibly make, we overfed the plants, we underfed them, we got the pH wrong, we didn't get them enough light, we gave them too much light. At one point we let it get too hot, too humid, there was just all of those factors, which we had to dial in to get it to work.

Patrick: How did the company form once you figured out the ins and outs of the earliest form of the product?

Ruwan: At first we thought that we were not very good at hydroponics, we were just screwing a lot of stuff  up, but when we talked to a lot of people, but when we talked to a lot of people that had tried to grow, both hydroponically and in soil, I mean lots of people have tried to grow their own vegetable garden, sometimes it last just a season, or however long it takes for the things to die when you first plant them,

but we noticed that a lot of people have trouble getting food to grow, and that's when we thought that there could be a product based around this, and then we went one by one through all of those variables that I have been talking about, feeding the plants, the amount of nutrients, pH of the soil or the water, we went through all of those problems and we tried to figure out, how can we create a system that corrects itself, and that was another half a year of development, but we eventually came up with these "plant pads".

Those are like layers of paper and fabric with seeds, and nutrients and pH buffers built in, so we kind of cooked all of that stuff into one product, that basically makes it so you just add water, and it takes care of itself.

Patrick: How similar were those pads to the product you have on Kickstarter now? I think most people, anyone who checks out your website or the Kickstarter, the thing that they would remember would probably be the (growing) box, so where did that come into the equation and how did that work?

Ruwan: The "plant pads" that we developed, our kind of our version of the "growing medium", so a growing medium can be soil, or cocoa fiber, or clay pellets, there's lots of growing mediums, so the plant pads are our version of the growing medium, the Nanofarm is the simply the box that the plant pads go into.

The Nanofarm provides light and ventilation, and the plant pads provide nutrients and the pH balancing, and just the place for the roots to grab onto and for the plant to support itself. So that's how they kind of work together to form that total solution.

Patrick: To get a perspective on the timeline, you guys first started working on this project one year ago, or was it two years ago?

Ruwan: Just about a year ago.

Patrick: Your first plant pad was developed then about 6 months ago, and your Kickstarter has been live for about 2 weeks?

Ruwan: Yeah so we have been pretty quick with the development.

Patrick: once you guys developed the product and it came to marketing it, obviously you guys have had lots of success on kickstarter, gotten thousands and thousands of dollars, so I am curious to know how you guys marketing your technology in this niche (so well?), this isn't a software as a service or something like that, or maybe a couple tips on how you guys did that?

Ruwan: We didn't do much paid advertising or we didn't hire a marketing firm or anything like that...Once we thought we had the product ready to go, we built 30 of these units and actually sold them, and I mean, we hand built these, like, I bent the metal for them myself, and we got them all made up, and we sold them to 30 people in Atlanta, and we saw how they interacted with the product and how they liked the food that comes out of it, and just the word of mouth from that, when you actually have product out there in the world, I mean, you can't walk into someones kitchen and see this growbox on their counter, and not ask them, you know, what is that thing, so we got a lot of word of mouth marketing through that way.

Patrick: For someone who is trying to get some hardcore tips for launching a kickstarter (in this specific space), what would you suggest?

Ruwan: Most of our kickstarter traffic has come through 3rd party reporting, so like journalists writing about it, things like that, and that's what I was saying with the uniqueness of the concept, it's not another app, or something like that, so that helps it standout, the publications that I read regularly, like Treehugger, and things like that...

Patrick: What are some other ones? 

Ruwan: Digital Trends, Mashable, just those tech blogs, tech websites, there are reporters there that are interested in urban agriculture, since it is something that is coming up quickly, it is getting hot, and you know, it's becoming a topic that people are writing about, it gets attention, and viewers are interested and readers are interested in it too, so it benefits both of us when  I write one of these journalists an email, and I let them know what we are doing in the space, in urban agriculture, and a lot of times they are interested enough to publish something on it.

And that kind of reach benefits their readers as well as us.

Patrick: Has the publication coverage been more organic or have you done more outreach for the coverage?

Ruwan: Definitely I am doing outreach, before we launched the campaign, I got a list together of journalists that cover this regularly, and publications that are in the space also, and I just sent an email saying "Hey, this is what we are doing, if you're interested, I'll send you more information", and that's how we got noticed.

Patrick: Did you send product to them, or that didn't happen because you had so few units?

Ruwan: A couple people did request product, we just couldn't send it to them, unfortunately, and a lot of these websites do need to have a product to review to cover you.

Patrick: Would you say that was the more "major" websites (that requested product) or was it more random, some people asked for it and some people didn't?

Ruwan: I think it was more random, there were definitely big publications that were more interested in just finding the cutting edge, before we could even ship them product,

Patrick: Regarding Kickstarter, I know you guys have not quite completed your goal yet but that you are really close...has this been a good channel for you, would you (Kickstarter), would you do it again? Do you think it is a good (channel) for urban agriculture?

Ruwan: I think crowdfunding specifically Kickstarter has been great so far, for us we're so small, we just don;t have the cash to do a manufacturing run, and have product on inventory to sell, so this is the best way to see if you have that demand, and if you have the demand, you now have the money to fulfill that demand. So I think it does a lot of things all at once, not to mention the organic traffic that kickstarter has driven, just because I think there is a lot of overlap between the average kickstarter backer or kickstarter user and that urban agriculture scene.

Patrick: What kind of traffic has kickstarter sent?

Ruwan: Kickstarter has been sending between a thousand and two thousand hits a day, that's when there aren't any articles or anything out, and then that spikes when someone covers us or there is something out.

Patrick: Which article has sent the most traffic to you guys? 

Ruwan: Last I checked, according to Google Analytics, it was Treehugger's article on us, and I think that is partly because their readership is really sustainability focused.

Patrick: How much did that drive?

Ruwan: Probably around 15,000 hits so far.

Patrick: and that was over a couple days or?

Ruwan: That was over 1 or maybe a 48 hour span. Yeah, in terms of the internet traffic
(it) drops off super quick.

Patrick: Wow, now that you have come this far, what are some of the main lessons looking back pertaining to urban farming, maybe something that you thought going into it that your belief has kind of changed, or looking back something you would do differently, what are your thoughts after you reflect on what you have done so far?

Ruwan: I think overthinking growing inside or growing in an urban setting, it's really easy to over analyze this stuff, but we didn't give enough credit at first to the biology of the plants, and how much they can actually deal with variability in the environment.

Because at first, we were like, we need to keep the environment at 70 degrees or 68 degrees, exactly, but then, these plants are growing outside and they are fine until it pretty much freezes out there, so I think a lot of urban ags resources are very, maybe, over-analytical about those parameters, including temperature and humidity and stuff like that.

I think allowing your urban environment to swing in a kind of way that mimics the natural environment is totally fine, and it would have saved us a lot of work if we had realized that earlier.

Patrick: Last question, for people who are interested in learning about what you are working on and the kickstarter, what should they do, where should they go? Is this a good product for somebody who is just getting started (with urban farming), and who maybe doesn;t want to mess around with all the stuff that we just talked about? 

What is the value prop for a beginner and what do they do if they want to learn more? 

Ruwan: I definitely think the Nanofarm is kind of a plug and play way to get started, and some may see that as copping out, but if you just want to get started growing food, with the minimal amount of set up, that's really pretty easy with the nanofarm, and it is just a hydroponic system so if you want to get your EC pen and your pH pen, and want to start using that with the nanofarm, that is totally possible too.

If you want to learn more about the Nanofarm, you can check out the Kickstarter.

Ruwan Subasinghe is the co-founder of Replantable, their product, the Nanofarm, is a easy to use hydroponic grow box designed for urban farming. It is available now on Kickstarter for pre-order, if you liked this interview, be sure to check out the Kickstarter page and contribute or check out Replantable's website at www.replantable.com

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