Hydroponics and Healthy Soil Propel OC Grower’s Urban Microfarm

Erik Cutter surrounded by the growing systems he has developed at Irvine’s Alegria Fresh micro­farm. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

Erik Cutter surrounded by the growing systems he has employed at Irvine’s Alegria Fresh micro­farm. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

Launching and running an economically viable urban farm is difficult under even the most favorable conditions. In Orange County, where land prices are at a premium and homes cannot be built quickly enough to fulfill resident demand, the prospect of finding available land and launching a profitable urban farming venture is viewed by many as remote and, at best, a very large challenge.

To an entrepreneur, though, a very large challenge is often viewed as a big fat opportunity. Such is the case with Erik Cutter, a Laguna, CA local and entrepreneur with a background in biochemistry and oncology.  

In 2012, Cutter set out to not only sustainably grow nutrient rich produce, but also to demonstrate the economic viability of urban farming in Orange County. To do so, Cutter designed a farm comprised of 22 vertical hydroponic growing towers holding a total of 750 plants on a 260-square-foot plot in Laguna’s Bluebird Canyon. Cutter christened his urban microfarm, Alegria Fresh. He also built the microfarm to prove that you could use water efficient, environmentally friendly vertical hydroponic growing towers to create a high yield farming operation on a small plot of land, pretty much anywhere.

Cutter says that microfarms are great for urban areas as they can be used to re-purpose existing sites–like abandoned lots–and can be placed on asphalt, on top of contaminated soil, or even on cement. “I actually prefer cement because it is weed free,” he says.

A starter plant is placed into a GardenSoxx at Alegria Fresh where it will receive nutrients and moisture for growth. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

A starter plant is placed into a GardenSoxx at Alegria Fresh where it will receive nutrients and moisture for growth. (Photo courtesy of Alegria Fresh)

In 2013, in order to expand his operation and educate community members and stakeholders, Cutter moved his farm to Irvine’s Great Park and set up his hydroponic vertical growing towers on a half-acre plot there. To complement the vertical growing towers and so that he could grow larger vegetables including squashes, kohlrabi, and beets for local consumers, Cutter incorporated an additional growing system, known as GardenSoxx. GardenSoxx are long, horizontal polypropylene mesh tubes that the farmer stuffs with his growing medium of choice–soil, compost, or coir. The farmer then inserts seeds, or seedlings, into the GardenSoxx, and applies nutrient-dense water. The GardenSoxx are beneficial in that they provide excellent drainage and aeration, thereby helping the plants get the oxygen they need to create strong root systems.

Between its hydroponic vertical growing towers and GardenSoxx, the farm grows over 80 different types of nutrient dense produce including leafy greens, root vegetables and herbs. The farm sells to restaurants and direct to consumers onsite and through a CSA. These sales make the farm profitable enough to cover operational costs and provide a living wage for its staff.

“We average around $12K per month in sales on our little farm, and we are only farming intensely a half an acre at any one time,” says Cutter. “If you extrapolate those numbers out [annually], that’s $144,000 on a half acre and $288,000 on a full acre. […] the average farmer likes to generate $50,000 on a commercial acre, so we’re already doing five or six times that.”

Cutter believes that this system of efficient and dense farming on re-purposed land is a viable solution for anyone striving to launch an economically viable urban farming venture where available and affordable farmland is hard to come by–as it is in Orange County. Alegria Fresh may soon get a chance to replicate its growing success inside new residential communities. Cutter is talking to several developers about placing Alegria Fresh microfarms inside residential communities currently under development. From Cutter’s perspective, “that’s gonna be the new paradigm shift in urban agriculture, that we’ll build scalable, high performance, zero waste, urban micro-farms within a community development. I’ve been waiting for developers to see this as a valuable amenity and they are starting to see that.”

“When you put this in a community model, it benefits the residents,” Cutter says, “[as] you are actually competing with supermarkets, but the food is far superior.”

(Note: At time of writing and due to planned development of a sports complex at the farm’s current Great Park location, Alegria Fresh is moving to a new site on Marine Way just outside the park. Please check the farm’s website for location information and updates.)

Erik Cutter will also be participating in the upcoming Grow Local OC Conference on November 10-11, 2016 at Cal State Fullerton. To hear him speak about hydroponics, soil health, and urban farming, click here: http://growlocaloc.eventbrite.com

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