Designing Accessible Vegetable Growing with Cloud Farms’ Bradley Ferrada

Using water and nutrients, growing vegetables is increasingly accessible using hydroponic systems.

 

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to the Green is Good Green Festival’s edition. We’re here in New York City today at the Javits Convention Center, and we’re honored to have with us Bradley Ferrada. He’s the Founder and CEO of Cloud Farms. Welcome to Green is Good, Bradley. BRADLEY FERRADA: Thank you. Thanks for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Bradley, before we get talking about Cloud Farms, can you share a little bit about your journey? Your story with our audience first? BRADLEY FERRADA: Sure. I started this as a graduate thesis for a Masters of Industrial Degree Program here in New York City, in Brooklyn at Pratt Institute. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Pratt Institute. Gotcha. Were you into sustainability? In your household growing up, Bradley, was it like a big deal to be green or did you have an epiphany along the way? BRADLEY FERRADA: I grew up in Vermont, so there is always a little bit of that around you all the time. There are small farms around. We had a garden. I was always kind of outside and doing some gardening. I kept trying to do that once we moved over to New York. We moved here after college, and I’d be trying to grow stuff in our apartment and having a really hard time of it. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Vermont is known for sustainability. A lot of great sustainable businesses and socially conscious businesses have come out of Vermont, such as Ben and Jerry’s, like just say and other great socially conscious businesses. So, you grew up in Vermont and you ended up here in Brooklyn and this Cloud Farm was a thesis that you were doing at Pratt? BRADLEY FERRADA: Exactly. JOHN SHEREGIAN: So, explain a little bit about how that went and how your business evolved out of the thesis. BRADLEY FERRADA: I basically had this final year of the program. It was a three-year program. At the beginning of it, I was always kind of from my previous college interested in big sustainability problems. I worked for VPER canvasing houses in the summer, when I was in college before, for a global warming campaign, so I was pretty interested in solving these problems. I was in school for design and saw this opportunity to do something to enable people to grow their own food. I had three years of designing lighting fixtures, like product engineering in New York, before going into the graduate program, so I knew that I could take something with enough time that I could develop something into a real, full, manufacturable product. That is kind of what I set out to do in the beginning to try to make something that would help people grow food in really tough conditions like in an apartment in a city with no outdoor space. JOHN SHEREGIAN: You had a design background and design/engineering background sounds like but you’re also a social activist and those matched up. BRADLEY FERRADA: Yeah, I mean I kind of looked at all this past experience and was like, well I could use this part that I did. I kind of knew that if I was really going to pursue something all the way it was going to have to be something that I was really going to care about. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Right, right. That makes sense. So Cloud Farms was born from this convergence of design and social activism? BRADLEY FERRADA: Yes, exactly. JOHN SHEREGIAN: So for our listeners and our audience out there that want to find Cloud Farms you can go to www.cloud-farms.com. What is Cloud Farms? Explain to our audience Bradley what is Cloud Farms? BRADLEY FERRADA: The easiest way to describe it is as a personal farming system. It’s a product that will automatically grow vegetables in your home for you. We specifically make two different products, one of which is a hydroponic system, so it’s a soil-less gardening system. The other is a window installable greenhouse that can go in just like you would install an air conditioner. You put it into your window. The plants grow out there. It maximizes the natural sunlight that you can get in an apartment setting or home setting. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Okay, so two products. We have the hydroponic system and the window system. BRADLEY FERRADA: And the window greenhouse. JOHN SHEREGIAN: The window greenhouse. BRADLEY FERRADA: You will use the hydroponic system. They’re kind of designed to work together. So, the hydroponic system will feed that plants that are growing in the greenhouse. JOHN SHEREGIAN: All right. Before we even get to doing a deeper dive on both those products, explain, though, why is it important to grow your own food or to be very close to the nexus of where your food is coming from? BRADLEY FERRADA: I don’t think many people really know or understand even kind of what’s going on with the scale of our agriculture system in general you know. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Absolutely true. BRADLEY FERRADA: How far something travelled, the energy that it took to get it to where you are from the farm, what went on to that food, like pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, how much water it took to grow that stuff. So, bringing it into the home is kind of a little bit of an educational experience for people. It kind of demystifies a lot of it. You start understanding how this can work, and you’re getting really fresh stuff out of it, really clean. You’re eating it right away. So, maybe you start asking some questions about what’s going on with the stuff that I’m buying in the store, you know, when was that picked? What went on to that? JOHN SHEREGIAN: Is this sort of the evolution from the citizens of our great country not knowing where their food was coming from at all then getting somewhat aware in the whole foods craze and buying organic or buying sustainable products? Now, this is like the last frontier of bringing it in-house and just like getting it into your own control and not even letting anyone else. BRADLEY FERRADA: It’s almost a democratization of food production. JOHN SHEREGIAN: I love it. Great way to put it. BRADLEY FERRADA: And you can image if you’ve had so many people, even in the U.S., like a million people, growing just a few plants. The total combined output is enormous. You’re like matching that of a really large farm! JOHN SHEREGIAN: It’s incredible. Just to go back to where food comes from now. I’ve heard, and I don’t know if this is true. You would know much more about this than I would, Bradley. When the food comes into America that’s not grown here, our ag, very little of it is truly examined due to lack of resources by the U.S. federal government. Is that true? Like two percent or less is truly examined in terms of quality, in terms of purity and things of that such? BRADLEY FERRADA: I can’t say exactly the numbers. Whenever there are some numbers about the quality of the food, it’s always a sample is taken here, maybe a percentage if over an acceptable level of pesticides, and they’ll say, well actually we’re pretty good because we get about 80 percent within the acceptable pesticide range of those vegetables that end up in the store, something like that. JOHN SHEREGIAN: So there’s a lot of numbers that are thrown around, and it’s still not as transparent as it should be, and therefore, that makes the case for the products that you sell at Cloud Farms. BRADLEY FERRADA: Exactly. JOHN SHEREGIAN: For our audience that just joined us, we’ve got Bradley Ferrada today. He’s the Founder and CEO of Cloud Farms. You can see Bradley’s products at www.cloud-farms.com. Bradley, let’s go into hydroponics. What is hydroponics? BRADLEY FERRADA: Hydroponics has been around for a long time. I’d say maybe since the 70s. It’s essentially soil-less growing. We’ve kind of figured out or companies have figured out, scientists, what the essential components are for nutrients that a plant is going to uptake. You can buy this stuff off the shelf, like a hydroponic nutrient solution, and you can mix it into just water. It’s water-soluble. The plants will uptake all the nutrients that they need to grow directly from the water so you don’t need any soil. For an indoor environment, it’s really kind of perfect. It’s very water efficient and you don’t have things lost through evaporation or going through the soil and getting sent off, runoff, and it’s really clean so it is very easy for this type of application. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Can you explain what different parts of the cloud form systems like how does it all work together? Do we have sample or something here in front of us? BRADLEY FERRADA: Sure. Here we have just one of the pots. The system itself is called nimbus and then the nimbus has these kind of accessory pots that it will use to actually grow the plants. These are called droplet. The tower itself is a three-liter reservoir with an air pump integrated into this tower, and it’s sending water and nutrients up to the plants that are sitting up in these pots. The pots are just going to maintain a level of water and nutrients in the pot, so as the plants drinks from that water, it always stay constant in the pot and the reservoir will go down. You only really have to refill that reservoir once every two weeks, so it’s very simple. JOHN SHEREGIAN: How much space does it take up? BRADLEY FERRADA: The actual tower has a footprint of about 5½ inches, so very small. Then, the pots will sit either on a windowsill or in your window in the greenhouse. JOHN SHEREGIAN: What are we looking at here? What’s our audience looking at here that’s in front of us? BRADLEY FERRADA: This is one of the growing pots. One of those towers will come with two of these pots. These are primarily for growing leafy green vegetables and herbs. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Such as? BRADLEY FERRADA: Such as lettuce, kale, spinach, Swiss chard, cilantro, basil, parsley. We’ve grown all that kind of stuff in here. JOHN SHEREGIAN: That’s awesome. Even to me, and I’m really excited about this, it sounds a little bit hard. Is this hard or is this easier than it sounds? BRADLEY FERRADA: It’s really simple. It’s very simple. I mean simpler than going outside or planting in soil because you have to water all the time and you have to fertilize that soil. In this, all you’re doing is filling up the tank. You can take the tank, fill it in you sink, and add a little bit of nutrient. The guidelines are on the bottle. Then you just plug it in and turn it on. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Are there videos showing how to do this on your website? BRADLEY FERRADA: We’re working on some of those videos right now. We’ll have those up probably in the next month or so. JOHN SHEREGIAN: When did your company launch? BRADLEY FERRADA: We are in the process of launching right now. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Launching right now, so this is pretty new stuff. BRADLEY FERRADA: This is very new stuff. JOHN SHEREGIAN: How many other companies are doing what you’re doing right now? BRADLEY FERRADA: There are only a couple of companies that are actually doing really consumer-level home products. I’d say we’re kind of in a place of making one of the higher-end, higher quality products available. JOHN SHEREGIAN: This is a pretty new industry then? BRADLEY FERRADA: Yes. JOHN SHEREGIAN: When you do an elevator pitch to a potential investor, or just to someone who wants to buy it versus a competitor that already exists out there, why is your system better than what already exists, the technology exists? BRADLEY FERRADA: Right. This has been designed to be really intuitive, really user-friendly and kind of visually explain itself. You always see how much water is in the tank. You know when it is going to be refilled. You see the water moving through the lines. Everything is very simple in terms of the interactions that you have with it and it looks really great. I mean we use really great materials on here, glass and painted steel porcelain on the pots. It’s great inside the home environment. JOHN SHEREGIAN: When you’ve tested it, what products grow best? What is this best suited for and what products do you still have to further develop your system to get better at growing? BRADLEY FERRADA: We’re kind of limited a little bit in terms of what we can grow by the size of the pot that we designed per system. For the size of this pot, it’s meant for a certain root mass so leafy green vegetables fit perfectly in this pot. Down the road, maybe there would be a product that has a larger pot and maybe a larger reservoir to accommodate larger plants. You could try to grow a tomato plant but it’s going to drink far more water and you’ll have to refill that tank more often. JOHN SHEREGIAN: We were talking about when you were a student at Pratt. You did this thesis paper. How do you really go, who was your inspiration or mentor and how did you go from thesis paper to business opportunity and, actually, not only business opportunity, because that’s sort of the middle phase, jumping off the cliff and, actually, doing the business, Cloud Farms? Explain that evolution. We have lots of students and other budding entrepreneurs that watch our show and listen to our show around the world. It’s always great to hear the process from a young entrepreneur like you who’s just about doing it right now. You’re right in the middle of it. BRADLEY FERRADA: It was never just an idea. I was kind of day one making things, making samples, making prototypes, 3D printing, what it took. I was making mockups, developing. JOHN SHEREGIAN: You were constantly evolving. BRADLEY FERRADA: Developing. It didn’t kind of pop out as like an idea that you have one day. JOHN SHEREGIAN: It wasn’t your week of ones, and that’s it, you’re done. BRADLEY FERRADA: Absolutely not. It was like I wanted to find what I want to get out of this and then it was just kind of grinding away on that. JOHN SHEREGIAN: That’s great because you have a design background so you had an innovation mindset, a design innovation mindset, to keep going there. BRADLEY FERRADA: Right. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Cool. Then who said to you, “All right, Bradley, enough. Let’s do a business out of this?” Was it yourself saying that or what other outside influences did you have on that decision-making? BRADLEY FERRADA: I suppose my thesis advisor, Bruce Hanna, was always kind of an enabler for me the whole way through. JOHN SHEREGIAN: That’s nice. That’s a good way of saying that. BRADLEY FERRADA: I meant for this to get to a place of manufacturability. By the time I got to the end, it was really far along developed and it needed kind of the next steps. I was fortunate enough to kind of get myself into a work situation where I could try to complete this and really push it through and work part-time and make that happen. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Great. But then how to do you go from great product or product that works, knowing there’s a market out there for it, to raising the money and actually making a business enterprise out of it? How’d that go? BRADLEY FERRADA: Next month, May 20, we’re launching a Kickstarter. We’re going to have a $100,000 goal there. All the manufacturing, all of our pricing, everything is kind of set up. It’s been a two-year process to get all of that in line. We’re ready to start taking preorders and do our first production run. This is that push right now. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Where are these produced? BRADLEY FERRADA: Some of the parts are produced in China and we will do all of the manufacturing, the assembly, packing and shipping right here in New York. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Do you have to go to China to source this or you just do this online now? BRADLEY FERRADA: Oh yeah. You can kind of put a request for quote and get in contact with a variety of—- JOHN SHEREGIAN: That’s how democratized the design built part of the world is. You don’t have to get on a plane anymore to go to China, like when I was your age, that was what you had to do. Now you could just like do this online with different manufactures in China. BRADLEY FERRADA: In looking at all the different parts that go into the system is pretty complex. Being able to do this right now, I can’t image how you would have done this before without having to go there physically. JOHN SHEREGIAN: What is this thing we’re looking at here? BRADLEY FERRADA: This is called Rockwell. It’s basically just like a wool block. It’s going to hold the seeds since there is no soil in the system. You would put this into this cup and you put your seeds directly in there. You could buy seed packets wherever you want. You would soak that little block and you’d put it in there and then just plug this into the system. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Where is this manufactured? BRADLEY FERRADA: That is from a company called Grow Den. They’re in the Netherlands. They’ll supply us with these little blocks. JOHN SHEREGIAN: So, $100,000. We’re down to the last two minutes. Final thoughts for our audience in terms of your Kickstarter campaign: Where can they find the Kickstarter campaign and any other final thoughts you want to leave us with today? BRADLEY FERRADA: The place you’d go would be www.cloud-farms.com. You can sign up on our mailing list there. We’re going to do an email announcement when we launch the Kickstarter. We’re also doing a product giveaway as a promotion right now for signing up on the mailing list. You can find that on our website. On the condition that we have a successful Kickstarter campaign, we are going to give away either two of our growing systems, our nimbus systems or your choice of that or one growing system and a greenhouse. JOHN SHEREGIAN: That is just wonderful. How many business partners do you have in this? BRADLEY FERRADA: There are three partners with me on this right now. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Where did you find those partners? From school or from friendship? BRADLEY FERRADA: One is my fiancée. Another is a friend of mine from my previous college. Another one is from my last graduate school program. JOHN SHEREGIAN: So three partners are going forward with the Cloud Farm system and it’s going to be on Kickstarter starting May 20. How long is the window open for the $100,000? BRADLEY FERRADA: It will be just a little over a month. JOHN SHEREGIAN: A little over a month. Have you studied other successful Kickstarter campaigns? BRADLEY FERRADA: Oh yeah, absolutely. JOHN SHEREGIAN: We wish you all the luck and we thank you for joining us today Bradley. Again, for our audience out there, to find Bradley’s great products and to sign up for the Kickstarter campaign, and to hopefully donate some dough, you can go to www.cloud-farms.com. Bradley Ferrada we thank you for joining Green Is Good today. You are an eco-entrepreneur that is very inspirational and truly living proof that green is good. BRADLEY FERRADA: Thank you. Thanks for having me. JOHN SHEREGIAN: Thank you Bradley.