This is the final story from a three-part series in Your Business this week on companies that are carving out a niche in organics. The series began Monday, with a story on Happy Planet, followed on Wednesday by a look at unique licensing deals signed by NatureClean maker Frank T. Ross & Sons.
The light-bulb moment came for 55-year-old Jerry Fitzpatrick two years ago, while he was surrounded by marijuana.
On a tour of a friend's indoor grow operation ("He said it was just for his own use and for medicinal," Mr. Fitzpatrick footnoted) the B.C. entrepreneur was stunned by the sight of the plants, which were thriving without any natural sunlight.
Then he began to wonder.
"I said, 'If you can grow this stuff indoors, I wonder what else you can grow?'"
Mr. Fitzpatrick and his friend, an adept student of hydroponics science, began conducting some edible experiments which, after some time and nourishment, yielded a gold mine of an answer. "Anything that doesn't grow inside the ground, we can probably grow it. We worked with some strawberries and these strawberries turned out to be the best-tasting, juiciest strawberries I've ever eaten in my life," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
"We tried basil. It was like a weed. It was phenomenal. You couldn't keep up with it."
In the mind of Mr. Fitzpatrick, a dogged pitchman whose professional life includes stints hawking TV remote controls door-to-door, anti-theft global positioning systems and estate-planning products, the concept for Urban Barns was born.
He's been working to bring life to the fledgling company, which went public in late 2009 on Nasdaq (URBF) to little fanfare outside the small circle of associates Mr. Fitzpatrick has co-opted as partners in his vision, which banks on a triumvirate of agricultural trends: increasing popularity of organic and local produce; the onset of climate-related outdoor growing woes; and continued shortages of urban agricultural land.
In Mr. Fitzpatrick's vision, the produce farms of the environmentally challenged future will take the form of his "urban barns," which are in effect retrofitted inner-city warehouses cum high-tech, low-energy, windowless growing facilities he conceives as agriculturally flexible, economically profitable and carbon neutral.
Although the company has been public for less than two months and its stock has barely flirted with the $1 mark, its promise has already tantalized a slew of potential investors, Mr. Fitzpatrick said, rhyming off a list of unnamed suitors ranging from big-money Californians and Bahamians to big-box bigwigs.
"It's exciting as heck, the reception that we're getting. I get phone calls and e-mails from every corner of the planet. I've got grocery chains that will buy everything we can produce," Mr. Fitzpatrick boasted the other day before refusing to name any of them because of "non-disclosure agreements we've signed."
If that's the case, it will still be a while before the cash register starts ringing.
Off the company drawing board, scrawled with plans for a North America-wide expansion over the next couple of years, Urban Barns is growing slowly.
During its past fiscal year it recorded a loss: total expenses added up to $867, including $104 for "website expenses." And as of Dec. 4, 2009, the company had no employees, according to published financial statements.
The roof on the company's first commercial facility outside Vancouver won't be nailed down for another couple of months, meaning production will be extremely limited until the completion.
Since the summer, when the vegetable- and fruit-growing test phase began to heat up, the company has been piggy-backing off the 100-acre B.C. facility owned by Jack Benne, the 67-year-old CEO of Urban Barns and Bevo Agro, a public company he founded 22 years ago and grew into the largest plant propagation facility in North America.
Under the watchful eye of Mr. Benne, who possesses "the greenest thumbs in the world," according to Mr. Fitzpatrick, Urban Barns' berries, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, basil, eggplant and peppers have been incubating in their own stall at the sprawling Bevo facility, which boasts 35 indoor acres. All have grown phenomenally in their adopted home -- a dark, windowless room lit with artificial light and fitted with growing technology Mr. Fitzpatrick is adamantly secretive about.
"We could grow under water, we could grow on the moon, we could grow on Mars," he said, ever the salesman. "What we do is not necessarily hydroponics because we've changed a bunch of stuff," he said, adding it requires "about a tenth of the water of conventional farming."
Public documents filed by the company describe the unpatented technology as "a proprietary vertical farming apparatus used to grow produce indoors that covers a limited amount of space and subjects plants to a variety of light spectrums over the course of their growing cycles." Each growing machine "allows a single plant to produce up to five times the crop yield that it would using standard greenhouse cultivation practices," according to the documents.
The technology isn't favourable for anything that grows on trees, or for root vegetables. But preliminary nutrient tests Mr. Fitzpatrick said he commissioned a university agriculture expert to conduct on some of the product revealed encouraging results.
"He said, 'Jerry, the nutritional levels are off the scale,'" Mr. Fitzpatrick said. "He said it's the highest levels of minerals and vitamins that he's seen in any crops. He said, 'There's nothing coming out of the field in Canada that will compare.'"
If that, too, is the case, Mr. Fitzpatrick said he's not ready to make the findings public yet because "we don't want to tip our hand" – documents show the company needs $2.3 million in new financing just to make it through this year. The goal isn't to make it into the black, just to break even, said Mr. Fitzpatrick, who isn't concerning himself with where the money will come from.
"Each barn, once it's open and producing, should generate in the neighbourhood of $1 million per year in profit," he said, adding the number could be even greater if a deal to supply, say, a certain ubiquitous big-box chain is struck.
Setting up those barns, however, will carry a hefty price tag: Mr. Fitzpatrick estimated the cost of setting up each new urban barn hovers around $1 million, which makes his 25-barns-in-two-years expansion plan seem highly ambitious.
Still, he's confident the idea for his barns, which can be set up anywhere, is a bulletproof solution to the global produce-farming challenges that lay ahead.
"Because we grow inside, we're not subject to bugs and animals pooping on [crops]" he explained. "We don't have weeds growing in our facilities, we don't need herbicides or pesticides. We pick fresh and deliver product the same day. It's not stored in coolers for weeks at a time. Priceless isn't even the word," he said.
"I believe ... everything will be gone as fast as we can grow it."