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From the ground up: Langley man wants to educate on new farming techniques

Year-round food production possible and economical through vertical farming methods
Ethan O’Brien (left) and Cole Cedar show off the zipgrow towers in O’Brien’s greenhouse on his parents’ Aldergrove property. The pair run Living Garden Foods

Ethan O’Brien never pictured farming in his future.

“I grew up on a farm and I still remember saying to my friend when I was 12, ‘who would ever want to be a farmer?’” he said with a laugh.

“And now here I am being a farmer.”

But the 23-year-old has not taken on the role in the traditional sense.

O’Brien, who grew up in Aldergrove and graduated from D.W. Poppy Secondary in 2011, completed his business degree in entrepreneurship and innovation from Simon Fraser University last week.

And it was while he was doing research for an environmental course and was studying the food system that he came up with the concept for his business, Living Garden Foods.

“I pretty much found out (the food system) was a house of cards and we don’t really have a whole lot of sustainability here,” he said.

“I realized that our current food production practices are outdated, unsustainable and increasingly volatile.

“The California drought and recent rise in food costs has taught us that we cannot rely on food imports going into the next decade.”

Eighteen months ago, O’Brien began using what he had learned to grow vegetables and herbs to sell at local farmers markets.

He produces his crops in a 20’ x 16’ greenhouse on his parents’ farm.

The greenhouse contains farm walls, a self-contained hydroponic system, which grows plants two to three times faster than soil and uses 90 per cent less water than traditional gardening, explained O’Brien.

The farm walls — which come in different sizes and range in cost from $500 to $1,000 — are capable of producing up to 40 pounds of vegetables in just under two months.

The walls are low-maintenance, self-watering, 100 per cent soil-less systems that allow food to be grown on any wall surface, whether indoors or out.

If they are outside, they just need access to sunlight while the indoor walls use LED lighting systems.

“Because we can use such a small, compact space, it makes year-round food production possible and economical,” O’Brien said.

“Within a year, the thing pays for itself.”

A few months ago, one of O’Brien’s SFU classmates, Cole Cedar, joined him as a partner in the business.

They have since expanded by partnering with Ontario’s Modular Farms to distribute zipgrow and modular farm products — which were created by U.S. company Bright Agrotech.

Modular Farms licensed the rights to the patent for those products in Canada.

O’Brien said the products are easy to set up with plenty of online Youtube videos and blogs available to walk people through the process.

Living Garden Foods also does consulting and education.

“We’ve been approached by educators from elementary schools all the way up to universities and colleges,” O’Brien said.

“Learning how to grow your own food is an essential skill that every student should be taught.

“It was lacking in my education growing up and we must change this.”

O’Brien said the demand is there for people to grow their own vegetables, but the space is not.

He cited the fact that there is a wait list for community garden plots and more and more people are living in apartments, condos and townhouses, and don’t have access to a backyard garden.

“This is also a great solution for busy individuals and families who don’t have the time to maintain a garden, because our system primarily looks after itself,” O’Brien said.

“We cut the time requirement down by 75 per cent to under one hour per week.”

O’Brien and Cedar will be at the Veg Expo, a vegetarian and vegan Expo at the Vancouver Convention Centre this Sunday.

To get in touch with O'Brien, email him at Ethan O'Brien