Jul 5, 2022
I want to be an ‘agritect’
It all started with a rooftop…
I can’t think of a better place to begin from than at the beginning. Seven years ago, I remember staring across West Broadway in Vancouver (Canada) at an empty rooftop above a Safeway grocery store. I couldn’t help but wonder how a greenhouse on the supermarket’s rooftop would look like and function. What benefits could a rooftop farm provide? What crops and how much of them could it yield? Where can I find information on how to plan an execute a rooftop greenhouse?
I began to sketch some concept drawings and drafting creative business and labor models. I always hit the same walls, finding myself stuck when it came to understanding how the farm might actually operate. Seven years ago, there was even less data than there is today about hydroponic greenhouse yields, economics, and the dependable technologies worth implementing.
At that point, I knew I wanted to learn everything there was about building-integrated agriculture. I am still and always learning.
I started by letting my ideas run freely. I believe that there is a real power in vision-based thinking and my vision of the future is cities where agriculture is integrated into buildings, driving them towards a sustainable, and circular economy.
In 2011, I launched Agritecture and subsequently designed several concept greenhouses, vertical farms, and a self-reliant urban city block. I began submitting my concepts to companies I respected and even landed an interview with Bright Farms in NYC. I didn’t get the job, and although I stayed in NYC, I was struggling to live off of bar work and social media consulting alone. Thankfully, I was accepted to a Masters program at Columbia and I began interning at Sky Vegetables hydroponic greenhouse whilst enrolled. Finally, I had hands-on experience and an education to put back on the talent marketplace!
The point of my telling you all of this is to help guide you to become a leader in the field of urban agriculture.
Here are my 3 keys to success as an urban agriculture entrepreneur:
Build your archive
Grow your network
Get hands-on experience
Here is how to use them:
1. Build your archive
Data in the greenhouse industry can be scarce and tough to validate. When you combine that with the challenges of rooftop and facade integration models its even more challenging to reduce project risks. Dependable research and data regarding more high-tech approaches like vertical farming, especially those using automation and aeroponics are the most challenging of all to obtain. There is probably more available information valuable for growing food using these methods in space, then there is for using them here on earth where we need it most.
One of the fastest and most effective ways of adding some edge to your career development in this emerging industry is to build a archive of your own and a clear method for building it.
An archive is the place you store your data, examples, brochures, economic models, ideas, etc. so you can leverage all you are learning when you need it most. Much of mine happens to be public at agritecture.com and is backed up by my own private google drive. Its easy to start, just choose three categories that are important to you (e.g. lighting, HVAC, business models) and begin capturing information from events, the internet, and your own operations if you have them. My expert tip for archiving is to add a level of confidence (green/yellow/red) in each addition so that you can identify gaps in knowledge and fill them effectively. Your goal is to have a fully green archive!
2. Grow Your Network
I never would have gotten to where I am in my urban agriculture career without a trusted network. One of my favorite activities is helping a contact out with a favor and calling in favors when I need one. This “give and take” is a two-way street and can build meaningful professional relationships when pursued properly. In a young industry like ours, collaboration is critical to success.
Your networks should be a diverse but strategic group of people that you trust and share knowledge with. They can guide you and support you through introductions and mentorship. Don’t forget to give them something back! Without giving your contacts something in return, they are unlikely to count you as part of their trusted network.
If you are an emerging professional or making a career change, it is important that your network knows you are looking for a job. Send them your CV for review and have them help you find the right target jobs and get introduced. Use LinkedIn to share projects you like and mention that you are seeking similar projects to work with.
Another great way to build your network is to attract people to you by publishing content. This has been key to my success: a fearless commitment to sharing my vision of building-integrated agriculture. Don’t be afraid to publish what you are learning. My expert tip is to always add ‘your take’ to everything you do, which leverages experience and insights from your previous work and skills and applies them to urban agriculture. Also, you can send articles to me, and I am happy to try and get them attention through Agritecture’s blog and give you credit for your unique content.
3. Get Hands-On Experience
Its always a challenge to be taken seriously in this industry. So many of the major challenges in its viability depend on talented growers, and they can be a tough audience to garner respect from if you are more experienced in business and technology rather than farming operations. In the first years after moving to NYC, I was rejected from job opportunities that were not even directly involving working with plants because I had not ever grown anything from seed to harvest.
I don’t blame those companies for not hiring me but having grown up in mega-cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo until I was 10, I had little understanding of agriculture. The idea of growing food was both exciting and daunting to me.
I began volunteering at community farms like HarlemGrown and at Sky Vegetables commercial hydroponic greenhouse. The work can be physically challenging and involves early mornings and often uncomfortable climates. Despite all of this, hands-on experience has been critical to my success in this industry and is something that if you don’t have, you must get ASAP.
Its amazing how people’s attitudes changed once I was able to discuss specific greenhouse operations, crops, deficiencies, food safety protocols, and labor challenges. Eventually, I began getting recommendations and referrals from growers and operators!
My expert tip for hands-on experience is to offer an operator work from your current expertise to get in the door and learn how to grow. For example, I offered Sky Vegetables free social media work in exchange for hands-on experience in growing. The work was hard and volunteering was tough on my budget but incredibly worthwhile in the long-term. You can also learn some hands-on skills growing at home but you should still spend time volunteering at a vertical farm or a greenhouse.
Bringing it all together
If you earnestly practice the 3 tips above for at least 4 months, then I can guarantee you will grow your confidence to be able to grab the most exciting career opportunities in this new industry. I would love to hear other challenges and successes you have faced.