Rock band Jethro Tull and the Covid pandemic planted the seeds for a budding micro farm in Pittsburg, Kansas (population: 20,646) that is meeting a longstanding need for healthy food access.
Leafy Green Farms was founded by Brad Fourby, a Navy veteran and California transplant drawn to opportunity in the Kansas plains. But in a state where the average farm is 781 acres, Leafy Green Farms is an anomaly. For one, it doesn’t use any soil. It also fits in a 40-foot shipping container.
Rock, Roll ‘n’ Fish
The concept behind Leafy Green Farms started to take root 30 years ago, after Fourby saw a program on Jethro Tull. Fourby was shocked to learn frontman Ian Anderson went on to become a successful fish farmer. Once Fourby stopped laughing, he started researching.
“Before I knew it, I was the only guy in the room that knew anything about fish farming,” Fourby told the Rural Business Show podcast. “Fish farming led to aquaponics, aquaponics led to hydroponics, and hydroponics led me to drive across the country with three cats to open up a freight farm in Pittsburg, Kansas,” he said.
Fourby wanted to turn his hobby into a full-fledged business, but he couldn’t make the numbers work in California. Between the taxes, licensing fees, and lack of space in Sacramento, Fourby’s plan stalled for years. When the pandemic hit, he finally said to himself, “Now is the time.” Fourby began looking for places where his business plan added up. He landed in Kansas thanks to the state’s business-friendly policies and a local need for greater access to fresh food.
Farming in a Parking Lot
The business model behind Leafy Green Farms is ingenious in its simplicity. Fourby produces 500 to 700 heads of lettuce per week out of a parking lot with just 10 gallons of water, a repurposed shipping container, some LED lights and lots of data. The self-contained, hydroponic farm requires zero herbicides and pesticides; the water that feeds the crops is filtered and recycled to eliminate waste runoff; and the container is climate controlled with a mobile app, enabling Fourby to maximize energy efficiency year-round. The whole operation fits in a 320-square-foot space that uses less energy than the average household. Fourby estimates that his micro farm produces about two acres of food per year, while using 95-99 percent less water than the traditional farm.
Leafy Green Farms is a feat of engineering, but it also begs the question: Why grow crops out of a shipping container in one of the nation’s leading agricultural states? Complex factors including an ineffective food distribution system and short growing seasons mean small towns like Pittsburg often lack access to affordable healthy food. The fruits and vegetables that are available often come with a higher price tag and shorter shelf life after being shipped across the country.
Leafy Green Farms solves the cost and access issues by bringing fresh, healthy food closer to home. The idea is not to compete with large, industrial farms or grocery chains, but to fill a critical need in rural areas. “[Pittsburg] has about 20,000 people, so it’s considered a food desert,” Fourby said. “Compared to what I’m used to in California and seeing the grocery stores out here — I knew that I could personally move the needle.”
Like any new business, especially those forged during the pandemic, Leafy Green Farms has faced its share of entrepreneurial challenges. The toughest challenge has been selling an idea that’s still relatively new and unfamiliar.
“When I started broaching the subject, no one knew what I was talking about. I got a lot of blank stares; I got a lot of eye rolls,” Fourby said. Still, he was confident his plan would work. He decided to prove the concept on his own. “I had to fund it by myself, so you’re looking at a guy that is all in on this,” he said. Now that the farm is set up and people can see it in action, doors are starting to open. People are “blown away” when they see it, Fourby said.
For now, Leafy Green Farms is still raising awareness and getting customers to try the product. The next stage is to grow into wholesale, retail and community-supported agriculture (CSA) work. Fourby is already in talks with local schools to supply cafeterias with fresh greens. Longterm, he plans to build more micro farms to better meet the needs of the Pittsburg residents and jumpstart continued innovation in the business sector. “I’ve seen with the farm-to-plate movement in Sacramento that it encourages other food producers to do things. It encourages restaurants to try things. It encourages other businesses to spring up, because of the food and the food scene, so to speak,” he said.
Advice for Entrepreneurs
Being a small business owner comes with a learning curve, but “that’s what makes it exciting,” according to Fourby. He advises future entrepreneurs to start with a plan and to write it down. “An idea with no plan is called a dream,” he said. After that, don’t be afraid to pivot. Business plans are living documents and running a successful business is all about knowing when it’s time to try something — or somewhere — different.