BYRON, Minn. — It's hard out there for a pioneer.
Not only is Fresh with Edge one of a few Minnesota companies growing plants using the burgeoning hydroponic and aquaponic methods, but it is doing so vertically and is one of only a handful of producers across the United States selling the plants live, unpicked at the farmers market.
Chris and Lisa Lukenbill started Fresh with Edge in early 2013 hoping to contribute something toward the local, sustainable agriculture conversation.
"We wanted to find something more we could do to support local agriculture than just going to the farmers market; something where we could attempt to find or make our own market instead of trying to compete," Chris Lukenbill said.
Some friends knew a little about hydroponics and Chris learned enough from them to want to start researching the growing technique on his own.
This is the couple's first full season growing herbs and greens and raising fish in rural Rochester.
Fresh with Edge has two growing sites for the time being, one is aquaponic and the other is hydroponic-only for now. Last year, the company started out with its aquaponic site in partnership with Squash Blossom Farm northwest of Rochester. The community-supported agriculture farm grows its produce in the ground while Fresh with Edge's produce grows overhead, fed by water that has cycled through and will go back to the nearby fish holding tank.
This year, Fresh with Edge got a boost from Mike and Laura Denney, who supported the Lukenbills by building a greenhouse on their property north of Byron. While the second site is just running hydroponically for now, it does have aquaponic ability.
Things are going pretty well, Lukenbill said. He's focused on applying lessons they learned last year to improve his company.
One might imagine there are lots of hurdles to overcome with a start-up company like the Lukenbills'. That assumption would be correct. Luckily, they both brought computer science backgrounds to their new venture and are used to solving problems on the fly. One problem they've had this year in the greenhouse has been algae growing in the water return troughs. Lukenbill is working on covering open areas in the troughs to reduce algae growth, but still get the water where it needs to go.
"In computer science, a lot of times you're trying to figure out things for the first time," Lukebill said. "You have to have a good amount of optimism and just pure not willing to give up on it."
Fresh with Edge uses vertical hydroponic towers to grow its produce in. In researching options for how they might set up their operation, Lukenbill came across Bright Agrotech, based in Wyoming. The company was founded by Nate Storey, who developed the vertical growing towers Fresh with Edge uses as part of his work toward his doctorate in agronomy.
The couple has had the benefit of developing a close relationship with Storey, which has been helpful as they've started their own business. The vertical hydroponic method has only been around for about five years, Lukenbill said, so it has been particularly helpful to have a solid relationship with someone who has worked closely with the design for some time.
The towers have allowed the company to get more produce per square food than they would otherwise. They also reduce costs for harvesting and labor and eliminate the need to have cold storage.
In the towers, produce is fresh until someone picks it. The towers are portable, so they go with Fresh with Edge to the Rochester Downtown Farmers Market each week, where visitors can pick the produce they want live and are charged by the ounce.
"Live sales are how we sell everything," Lukenbill said. "We're at the forefront of that. We get a lot of oohs and aahs."
The company grows herbs and greens in their system right now. For herbs, they have sweet basil, lemon basil, mint, parsley, chives, cilantro, tarragon and thyme. Fresh With Edge's greens include arugala, bok choy, lettuce, kale and swiss chard. It has 200 towers growing at its greenhouse site for the time being, with capacity for at least double that. The Squash Blossom Farm site has 60 towers going.
Fresh with Edge has used its presence at the farmers market to reach out to consumers interested in hydroponic and aquaponic methods andhas allowed the company to connect with some local chefs.
Eventually, the company would like to offer setups for consumers to be able to have a growing tower in their home, potentially as early as later this year. The working unit, which would include a growing tower, water tank and small pump to keep water moving, would essentially allow consumers to buy in bulk from Fresh with Edge, Lukenbill said.
In the meantime, Lukenbill has gotten some Fresh with Edge installations going around town. The company's herbs and greens are growing at People's Food Co-op, Rainbow Cafe in Pine Island, Tonic and Salute.
"(Fresh with Edge) hits on a lot of things they're already excited about," Lukenbill said. "It makes it easy to sell. Restaurants that are focused on local foods have such a good ability to work with stuff like ours that's not always exactly the same every week."
The installations include multiple towers so chefs can select the freshest right in their own facilities. The set-ups are fairly easy for Lukenbill to maintain. After determining how many towers are needed to start, he comes by and replaces towers in as needed, refreshes the nutrients and refills the water basin.
"They're pretty self-contained," Lukenbill said.
On the aquaponics side, Fresh with Edge's fish are sold whole. Last year, the company had a small amount of tilapia that was quickly snatched up by its loyal Facebook followers. This year, the company is raising catfish, which can handle colder weather better than tilapia.
The Lukenbills have two small children. Griffin is two years old and has already taken to running around and watering plants. Nolan is two months old. In addition to their small helpers, a first year horticulture student goes out to the greenhouse to take care of the day-to-day with the plants.
Lukenbill considers Fresh with Edge to be operating on a micro to small commercial plane and is excited about the possibilities ahead for his business and hydroponics and aquaponics.
"We're nowhere near saturating the market," Lukenbill said. "There is great potential, especially in larger and more affluent communities. At the end of the day, it's a rewarding thing. We're trying to solve problems larger than ourselves."
Lots of possibilities are ahead. For now, Lukenbill wants to make sure he takes as much advantage of the work he has done so far while still exploring new opportunities and partnerships.