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Urban Farming Insider: With Glenn Behrman, Founder CEA Advisers, The Plant Shed, and Greentech Agro

Glenn Behrman first started the Plant Shed in the 1970's, and has been involved with urban agriculture for over 40 years. We caught up with Glenn to discuss many topics, including his personal story, container farming versus vertical farming, and what is wrong with today's perception of urban farming.

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Sections Covered: 

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Introduction

UV:                       
Can you tell us a little bit about CEA Advisors and what you guys are working on now and how you got started? What is your background in the urban farming industry?

Glenn:
My career started in the foliage industry in the early '70s. When I first started there was no such thing as a real foliage industry. It was houseplants but (at the time) there was no such thing as houseplants. You know what I mean? There was no Home Depots and no aquaculture and no LED lights. There was no real marketing channel. It was a fragmented industry.

It was ripe for disruption. When I went into it, I had no experience and no real insight. I had nothing. I had no money. I had no education. I just knew it was a good idea and I just spent the next 25 years putting one foot in front of the other and building up a business that was a very substantial business that was one of the first real category killers before the term really existed. 

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The houseplant industry: A precursor to urban farming

UV:                   
That company (that dealt houseplants) was different than CEA Advisors? Did it have a different name?

Glenn:                 
Yeah, that was called The Plant Shed. It was in New York City. It was nine stores. I had an import division. I started traveling to the Philippines and Thailand and China back in the '70s and importing various lawn and garden products for sale in my own
stores.

The last store that I had in New York City, before I retired and sold the business, was 21,000 square feet. It was in a location that now could probably be, and I'm not exaggerating, now in New York City, would probably be $100,000 per month to rent. 

UV:                
These were primarily nonedible plants though, right?

Glenn:                 
Yeah, just houseplants, just ornamental plants for beautifying people's homes. It's funny because I kind of remember the first day, or the first time after Home Depot entered the market ... I remember for the first time telling somebody, "Look (now) plants are basically disposable."  You put something in this corner in your living room and it looks beautiful for six months, and then it could die so you throw it away and you buy a new one. 

You know what I mean? The whole industry, it went from a beautiful to ... It went from a living thing to a piece of furniture.

Glenn:                 
(Eventually) we started importing orchids from Thailand. We built a big nursery and a big plant brokerage business there. Then in 1994, I just sold everything and moved to Thailand.

UV:
What was the thinking behind that?

Glenn:
I just had enough. I had enough money. I had enough.Things were changing. Ikea was in the plant business. Home Depot was doing a big job. Rents in New York City were unbelievable. It wasn't fun anymore. 

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The Early Days of Urban Farming

UV:                
How did you move from the foliage, as you say, to the more edible type stuff?

Glenn:  
What happened was, while I was living in Thailand I became the landscape project manager for a casino project in Vietnam. It was a 500 acre site that was just sand. It had to be completely landscaped as a five star hotel.

As that project was coming to a close, I went to China to Hortiflorexpo, which is an event that's held every year in China. You know, like a horticulture exposition.
               
On my way back I read about a company in Holland that was starting to do research on indoor farming, using LED lighting, climate control and all that kind of stuff. I immediately went to Holland to meet with those people.

After we met I immediately tried to buy the U.S. rights to that company.

After seeing their technology. The seed for indoor farming was planted in my head. I went back home to Thailand. We had a big home and a farm and all that there. I told my wife, "You know what, we're moving back to America. I am going to get involved
with this new technology- take everything that I've learned and everything that
I've done and all the connections that I have, and I'm going to pursue this." That's what I did.

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The beginning of GreenTech Agro

UV:
Did you start a new company at point, back in the States?

Glenn:                 
We started a new company called GreenTech Agro.

UV:
Okay, and then you eventually sold that company and then started CEA Advisors or is that company still around?

Glenn:                 
That company's still around. It's kind of dormant now. It's not doing anything one way or another. I had a partner in that company, he was just a silent partner.

Eventually I bought out the partner and started CEA Advisors, used it to pursue the highest and best use for vertical farming, rather than to concentrate on the Growtainer concept. In other words, I felt that containers and indoor farming had a lot more potential than just container farming.

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Vertical Farming vs Container Farming

UV: You saw more potential in the vertical stacking inside of the container as opposed to just growing one level in the container? Why?

Glenn: No, in other words, what I am trying to say is, the first few years was spent strictly growing in containers and developing a system to grow in containers.

As I started to work out the problems associated with container growing, or container based production, I started realizing that this was not really the highest and best use for (controlled atmosphere) technology.

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Problems With Urban Farming Container Growing

UV: What are some of those problems (with container growing)?

Glenn: Well, air circulation, humidity, climate control, an effective irrigation system. A container is not the best.  For example, it's 10 feet high.

How many vertical levels can you put in there? How much production can
you put in there really without crowding the plants? There are some people,
they advertise that they can grow 45 plants per square foot.

Glenn:  That's fantasy. This business, so much of it is hype. So much of it is bad information to people that don't know any better. It's difficult to really tell the truth,
whether it is good for you or not. People believe what they want to believe.

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Understanding "plants per square foot" based off plant type

UV:
Does the plants per square foot ... Does that change based off of the type of plant? Are you talking about a best case scenario?

Glenn:
Well of course. You could sprout seeds at 45 seeds per square foot. You can't grow plants at 45 plants per square foot. A head of lettuce, for example, as it grows, it needs more space.

Glenn:
If I wanted to promote an untrue economic model, I would turn around and say, there are 216 seed cell trays that are 1.5 square feet, and tell people they can grow a hundred plants per square foot.

UV:
That's not even close?

Glenn:                 
It's not true. It's not true and it's not real and it's not economic. It's not based on any integrity. In other words it's based on just feeding. It's telling people what they want to hear.

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Reliable urban farming brands to know

UV:            
What are some of the brands in the industry as far as lighting or fertilizer or what not, that you view as, they've been high quality for a long time? 

They're dependable. Somebody wants to get a top-notch system and get
really great lights. What are some of the companies they should be looking at?

Glenn:
It's not necessarily that ... In other words the criteria for let's say lighting, for example, which is a very very crowded market. First of all, the lighting is only ... All of the components are really based on what crop you want to produce, or what your
economic model is, or what your business model is.

In other words, listen I think Philips makes a good light for certain applications. I think Heliospectra makes a good light for certain applications. I think even Fluence ... I know it's Fluence, they make a good light. Every light is got to be matched through
the crop that you're trying to produce. Every fertilizer, in other words ... The whole key to successful vertical farming is about balance. It's not about any one particular product. It's that all the products work together and in conjunction with each other.

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Knowing Variety and Desired Characteristics Before Growing

UV:
How do you go about finding that balance? For example, loose leaf lettuce, how would you view that balance?

What would be some of the best components for those, just because I know that's
a pretty popular crop?

Glenn:
Again, you're talking about lettuce. Are you talking about full heads? Are you talking about cut-leaf? Are you talking about ... You know what I mean? In other words there's so many ...

Listen, I get calls from people and they tell me, "Well I want to grow
lettuce." I'm like, "Okay, great." I then have ten more questions to ask them. In other words, lettuce is not generic. Lettuce is ... There's a hundred different varieties.

Are you growing something that's green? Are you growing something that's got red in it? Is the color important? Is the weight important? Do you have a post harvest facility? It's not all that simple. Everybody thinks it's that simple. It's not.

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What Urban Farming Beginners Should Think About Before Growing:

UV:                       
Those are some of the considerations that people should be thinking about- some of the stuff that you just mentioned like the color, the weight, the facility after, the post harvest facility. Are there any other things that ...

Glenn:                 
Who's your customer, in other words, your packaging costs? Are you selling to restaurants? Are you selling to ... Listen the container, a 40 foot container is too big for a farmers market and too small for a supermarket.

UV:      
Right, so that's more of a restaurant type fit, is what you're saying, or that's not what you're saying. 

Glenn:       
Right but then a 40 foot container could sell to a restaurant is a recipe for disaster.

UV:                       
Why is that?

Glenn:                 
An economic disaster because you're never ... They're never going to consume everything you produce.

UV:                       
Then they'll presumably ... You're saying that they may order from you every week, but the size of the order will be different.

Glenn:                 
Yeah, well of course. In other words, you're producing every day. You know what I mean? I feel bad for some of these people that have no business model. They're going to be under constant pressure to sell what they've created.

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Understanding your urban farming business model:

UV:                
How do you at least start? Obviously it may be a complicated total solution, but how do you at least start to address the bread and butter of the business model. What do you view as the fundamentals of that, addressing some of the problems we've been
talking about?

There might be a mismatch between demand and your supply. Managing the unit cost, how do you really look at that, just at least to get started? I know there's a lot of intricate details.

Glenn: This is a business just like any other business. You follow me? You really have to do your homework. The truth of the matter is that, again you are dealing with a market that doesn't ... They have good intentions.

You know what I mean. They don't realize how complicated it really is.

UV: You're talking about the buyers?

Glenn:
I'm talking about the growers, the customers, the indoor farm ... The Facebook ... The farmers that learned about this from social media. Learned about this from talking to their friends. They have an interest in pursuing this type of business model.

UV:
You're talking about people who
are actually growing the stuff or trying to.

Glenn:
Not growing it, but trying to.

UV:
Yeah, okay. You're saying they have good intentions but ...

Glenn: They don't realize how complicated of a process that it really is. In other words, let me tell you something. I'll give you an example. This is just my own opinion okay?

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The Flaw of Remotely Monitoring Farms

Glenn:                 
People promote the idea that their farms can be remotely monitored. I don't think that you should run your business from Starbucks.

 You follow me? I think that in order to be a farmer, you need to get up in the morning and go to your farm - whether it's in a container or a greenhouse or a warehouse or wherever it is.

You need to get yourself up to a level where you have a checklist every day of things that you do, and you do every one of those things. You follow me - so that you get to a point where in the first minute you walk in and you look around, you know what's going on. You follow me? A latte, and adjusting your humidity is nonsense. 

UV:
Right. The issue with that is, from what I'm getting from what you're saying is, it may not all happen in one day, but slowly but surely you will get out of touch with what's going on.

Glenn:
You will get out of touch or get in touch. In other words if you understand that you're not ... Listen this is not a technology business. This is food production.

You follow me? That's really the bottom line. You need to put it in the right perspective and approach it for what it really is.

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The Value of Data in Urban Farming

UV:                
What do you think of the whole argument about collecting data on growing? A lot
of these companies that will, like as you mentioned, allow you to monitor stuff
remotely, will say there's a lot of value in the data of the growing and how
that they can use that data to make improvements in the future. How do you view
the value of that? Do you agree with that? Do you disagree with that? Do you
think that's a similar concept to ... It clashes with the idea of going every
day, or what do you think of the data aspect? 


Glenn:                 
Honestly I haven't figured
that one out yet, for an honest answer. I don't know. I guess maybe as an old
timer in this industry, I look at things in a more traditional sense. I don't
feel that ... You know what I mean? I think that business should be run in a
cash flow positive manner.

Glenn:                 
I see young people today who's
business model is getting funding. That's their destination.

UV:                
You're talking about specifically in the space or just in general?

Glenn:                 
I think in general. I don't follow other spaces. You know what I mean? I got to tell you. Somebody said it the other day on a trip overseas. They said, "The one thing we see about you, and based on everything you're doing and saying, is that you live this
business."

I'm involved with projects all over the world. I hear a lot of different perspectives. I speak to a lot of very intelligent people. I try to pay attention to everything that everyone says, take it seriously. Like I said, I pay attention to people, from young, old, in the business, not in the business. I try to compute it all, where it all fits in. I think that there's not enough focus on really building this as an industry.

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Why Designing A Food System for 2050 in 2017 Is A Mistake

Glenn: 
It's (urban farming) too fragmented. It's being approached from too many different levels, in too many different ways. I think that people to some degree, have lost sight in the fact that this is food production. I'll give you an example. People talk about the
population explosion and feeding the world in 2050.

Glenn:                 
I've got to tell you, my honest opinion is that ... First of all, we don't have any idea what people are going to be eating in 2050. There's a lot of technology involved with food production, meatless meat and egg-less eggs. There's a lot of stuff like that
going on. I believe that it's very possible that the solution to the food
crisis that's coming in 2050 ... They may not find the solution until 2049. 

UV:                
Yeah, that would not be surprising to me.

Glenn:                 
I think that the issues that need to be focused on right now are the issues that need to be focused on right now. I wouldn't use that as a motivation for building a business.

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Rapid Fire Questions

UV:              
A couple more short answer questions, rapid fire questions, what I like to call
them ... What are some specific crops that you see getting trendy?

Do you see any trends and stuff that people are asking you about or stuff that's getting more popular with restaurants or what not?

Glenn:                 
That's really a question of creativity. You know what I mean. Edible flowers are interesting- different, unique, gourmet, smaller quantities of higher value, more unique products. It also depends on again, on your market, on your economics, on your ... In other words,  trendy is great. Can you make money with it?

UV:
 (What about) Assuming that the trendy thing will touch a better margin or have higher demand?

Glenn:                
Again, you can grow the trendy item. Can you sell it? Can you grow the trendy item in a vertical farm?

How much does it cost you to set up that facility to produce that product? You know
what I mean? This is all about business. It's all about economics. While something might be trendy, it may not be possible to produce in an efficient, profitable manner.

UV:        
What's your favorite fruit or vegetable?

Glenn:                 
I don't know. What's my favorite vegetable? I would say spinach.

UV:
Spinach? 

Glenn:
For growing or for eating?

UV:
I don't know, is it different?

Glenn:                 
Well growing ... Well for eating I like spinach because it's got a lot of different ways it can be prepared.

My favorite food for eating is probably fresh mozzarella.  Very fresh mozzarella.

UV:
Just by itself or ...

Glenn:
Yeah.

UV:
All right well what about for growing?

Glenn:
My favorite product for growing is got to be just anything unique and unusual.

UV:
Okay, what's one example.

Glenn:
Minutina.

UV:
Minutina?

Glenn:                 
Yeah, minutina.

UV:                
What is ... I'm not familiar
with that. What is that?

Glenn:
 It's a green that originally comes from Europe. It's an addition to a salad, nice, crispy, delicious green that actually grows very well in an indoor environment. 

UV:                
Like arugula?

Glenn:                 
No, it's not. It's like ... I don't even know how to describe it. Look it up. It's a really interesting product. It's pretty rare and not easily available.

UV:                
Okay, for sure. If people want to find out more about you or what you're working on now, what's the best place for them to go, just the website?

Glenn: Yeah, let them start at the website. The Growtainers' (Growtainers.com) website we keep up-to-date.

UV:
Thanks Glenn!

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