An Urban Agriculture Story: DIY Hydroponic with Keith from Hottawa Peppers

by Dominique Bernier,

Starting a hydroponic urban farm and building a greenhouse for it may seem a bit daunting. However, this is exactly what Keith has done with Hottawa Peppers. We thought that sharing his story, his DIY steps to growing hydroponically and some of his business tips might show you that it is possible to create an urban agriculture project of your own.

A former senior IT from Ottawa’s high-tech industry, Keith decided to leave coding to re-focus his interests on his family and his hobby: urban farming. It all started about eight years ago, when he became a single parent. The questions that popped in his mind were “What the hell am I going to do? How the hell am I gonna do it?” Keith said, as he was in a situation that called into question his life priorities. “It was a state of panic” he added. While struggling to get a better balanced work-family relationship, Keith realized that he needed an outlet.

“I got into growing food not only because I can do it and can stay close to my kids, more importantly, I can have that moment of peace and quiet over something that I own, something that I do. Its about taking ownership of your life.” - Keith

For Keith, growing food is something he does for himself. However, the produce he grows are for others, which makes him feels like he’s doing something for the community as well.

After building his 411 square meters greenhouse (1,350 sq.-ft.), he quickly noticed that operating a hydroponic farm is not that simple. Keith explained that there is a major challenge that keeps coming over and over: time.

“Right now the issue is to manage time. It requires lots of work but I can’t afford to hire somebody. And because the growing process is time sensitive, with peak periods, the hard part is being able to do it all by yourself in a timely matter.” - Keith

As one person isn’t always enough and it can be hard without the proper resources, learning and continuously improve the process become essential.

“Getting organized, with a proper operation schedule and a sales plan is the key to get the job done.” - Keith

Achieving a level of efficiency that gets you the most out of a short amount of time is no different than coding for Keith. As he explained, to reach an objective in coding, his years of experience have taught him that he would need 4 steps to get the expected result, while a junior might take 10 or 20 steps to get there. When it comes to his urban farming project, he works on moving from junior to senior in understanding plants, as well as on what he can do to continuously improve his production process.

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Keith’s DIY Hydroponic Steps

1. Start seedlings at home.

This is where having a basement can be very handy. Seedlings are started from seeds, in mid-February, using small sponge rocks called Rockwool. Then, when they are about 2 inches high, they are transplanted into floating foam boards (foam board with holes) in bins. When they are about 1 foot high, they are topped off to get more branches. They stay in the basement until late April. This step lasts roughly 2 months, usually from mid-February to mid-April, depending on the weather. Then, they will be moved to the greenhouse, where reservoirs are installed.

alt textStart from seeds
alt textFloat in bin
alt textGrow to mid-April

2. Transfer seedlings to greenhouse with the 3 time moves

  1. Take the seedlings from the propagation tray and put each of them in a tote.
  2. Then, you float tote in the bin for growth, as the plants are fed with nutrients in the water.
  3. Once they get to maturity (when plants have at least two inches of roots) plants are potted with clay rocks for the rest of the season.
alt textSeedlings in a tote
alt textTote in bin for growth
alt textPotted when they reach maturity

The method used to grow these plants is called Deep Water Culture (DWC), suitable for peppers and tomatoes. There is also another method used in the greenhouse called Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), which is a hydroponic technique wherein a shallow stream of water containing dissolved nutrients required for plant growth is re-circulated past the bare roots of plants in a watertight gully, also known as a channel.

The latter is particularly efficient for lettuces and herbs as the growth period from seeds is 40-45 days, instead of 75 from traditional farming. However, Keith pointed out that one of the weakness with NFT is that it relies on power. In the event of a power failure of over 24 hours, all crops can be lost. Also, you will have to consider the cost of nutrients, which is way higher then DWC method. In order to be lucrative, you may have to grow a few thousand heads.

alt textDeep Water Culture
alt textNutrient Film Technique

The Business Model

For Keith, selling plants early in the gardening season covers almost 80% of his operational costs. This strategy helps to generate a better profit margin over a growing season.

The whole operation can generate from $107 to $160 per sq.-m (or $10 to $15 per sq.-ft.). Hydroponic methods make the plants grow faster with higher outputs than plants who grow in the soil. Fertilizer is added to water to feed the plants, but no pesticides or herbicides are required. It also required 60% less water than traditional farming. The greenhouse helps reduce water loss from evaporation. Overall, it keeps the operational costs very low.

Considering the 126 sq.-m. of the greenhouse (or 1350 sq.-ft.), a median revenue of $133 per sq.-m (or $12.50 per sq.-ft.), minus annual operation costs of roughly $2000 for this year (which represents something close to $15 per sq.-m. or $1.50 per sq.-ft.), the potential profit margin could be up to 89% for this year. Of course, it doesn’t include the time spent and a hourly rate for Keith’s work, the only employee of this whole operation.

alt text

E-commerce Solutions for Urban Agriculture

When it comes to selling, Keith explains that it’s always an issue. In addition to a good location, a well implemented customer base and a good communication channel to reach customers, time remains a barrier in the selling process as well. For Keith, as much as he would like to sit in a well located booth to sell is products and provide his customers with useful information about what he’s selling, he simply can’t because he doesn’t have the time.

Frictions in the process of growing food, as in marketing products are time consuming. Doing more and better in a lesser amount of time becomes a turning point when seeking to improve our local food supply chain. We should seek to reduce friction at every step.

As the practice of urban agriculture is growing rapidly and while people like Keith are working on improving the process of growing food, digital technologies have already reshaped our buying habits. E-commerce has become more relevant than ever for small food producers. At RakeAround, we believe that now is the time to provide urban food growers with an affordable, frictionless e-commerce environment, as well as a selling/buying process suitable for both producers and consumers’s urban lifestyles.

Start your own project now!

RakeAround creates e-commerce solutions that facilitate sales and purchases of urban agriculture products, grown by and for people living in the same city or neighbourhood.

About the author
Dominique Bernier

Dominique is the co-founder of RakeAround. For him, demographic trends, the democratization of technology and the personalization of food will shape food systems of the 21st century.