Miami is known for sun, beaches, palm trees… and indoor farming? Apparently, this is the new thing thanks to Hammock Greens. This up-and-coming startup is transforming the local food system with an unusual approach for this city.
Hammock Greens uses shipping containers converted into indoor farms to grow food in a controlled environment. This method guarantees consistent crop growth even in extreme weather conditions.
Since its beginning in 2017, Hammock Greens has shared land in a variety of spaces in Miami, from Wynwood’s art galleries to Overtown homeless shelters, to hotels, and even in a few alleys.
Hammock Greens’ ambition is to put a farm in every unused, unloved, or under-appreciated space in Miami. By converting spaces while keeping this mindset, Hammock Greens grew into neighboring parts of its original community that were underserved. And for the founders, Thomas and Aaron, this felt like an opportunity to bridge the gap between the Wholefoods vs Cornerstores diet.
The video below shows a quick recap of my visit to some of their facilities.
Who is Behind Hammock Greens?
Hammock Greens is the story of two best friends who decided to go above and beyond success in business to bring quality food and sustainable possibilities to their community.
Thomas Smitherman studied business and marketing, as well as culinary arts. His professional background includes an extended experience in the food sales and wine industries. Thomas is Hammock Greens’ green thumb, the mad scientist, and above all, the coach. He has coached sports for decades and he approaches work in very much the same way – he comes to win, with respect.
Chef Aaron Dreilinger made a successful career for himself in culinary arts. Co-owner and partner of Chef David Swadron Cuisine & Event Design, Aaron is very active in the community. He sits on the board of Slow Food Miami as well as working with other community health organizations to connect agriculture, nutrition, and local chefs.
Aaron has always leveraged his position as a chef to connect local agriculture and culinary fashion. His scientific studies in sustainable design served him for 20 years after graduating, when he was approached by Thomas to get involved in Hammock Greens. His role is now to direct the company’s development, sales and community outreach, while Thomas is operating and managing all farming aspects.
Aaron told me that the name of Hammock Greens comes from Thomas. When Thomas heard about about growing leafy greens indoor using a shipping container for the first time – where the work is low-intensity and some part of it can be done remotely – he told himself: this sounds like it’s something I could do from my hammock. Thus, the name Hammock Greens was born.
The business model
The Miami Heat and Miami Hurricanes are more than sports clubs, they are local climate realities. They make it very difficult to grow food outdoor from May to September, and this is precisely where Hammock Greens brings an added value, according to Aaron and Thomas.
Hammock Greens is growing food in hydroponic, indoor, climate-controlled shipping containers, designed by Freight Farms. Having a steady and secure production all year long became attractive to chefs who want to prioritize farms-to-table products.
With their 6 container farms, they are the second biggest owners of Freight Farms in the United States after Square Roots, co-founded by Kimbal Musk. The difference between the two is that Square Roots sells mostly retail bags of lettuce and herbs, while Hammock Greens sells premium lettuce heads and other leafy greens to restaurants.
As our backgrounds were in restaurants, we decided to stick with what we knew and we had no problem knocking on those doors to sell our products. And this part was pretty easy for us. – Aaron
When Aaron wants to show how their model differs from a traditional farm, he compares it to a bakery. Their container farms are just like ovens. Like a bakery that is constantly putting out loaves of bread from its ovens, Hammock Greens is constantly harvesting from their 6 container farms. This allows them to deliver their products 4 days a week.
By using a bit of mathematics and tight planning, Aaron has determined that they are harvesting only when clients need the products. This optimizes and enhances product freshness for the clients. Each container can produce up to 4 tons of leafy greens per year and requires about 20 hours of work per week.
For Thomas, selling to restaurants was the most logical path to start. As he told me, “this was the fastest way to generate revenues as, by design, we grow predictable and constant consumables.”
The next logical step would have been to go with retail stores. However, for multiple reasons, Thomas believes that the right direction for them would be direct e-commerce sales to consumers.
There is a consumer base that really wants what we do, and we know that those consumers are already sourcing some of their food from direct sales applications. – Thomas
In this train of thought, RakeAround showed up on their radar in early 2019, with its online marketplace, as an up-and-coming option to sell directly to consumers. This opened the door to a new collaboration for supplying Miami online shoppers with hyper-local and hyper-fresh food. Hammock Greens has made a couple of products available on RakeAround to test the market. However, since March 2020, RakeAround’s online marketplace is unavailable as significant updates and fixes were required.
That being said, Thomas and Aaron stressed the importance of many other aspects necessary to make the direct sale experience user-friendly and frictionless for their products. This includes packaging, delivery or pick-up-point options, as well as gathering multiple local producers to enhance the online local food shopping experience. Nevertheless, they are still being busy supplying restaurants at this time.
How Does the Farm work?
The seed-to-plate process takes under 10 weeks. Each farm has its seedlings station where seeds germinate and sprout for 3 to 4 weeks. Then they are transferred to the growth towers and continue their growth for about 6 weeks.
Every tower grows from 12 to 18 plants. On top of each tower, a dripper feeds the plants with a mix of water and nutrients. Drippers need to be aligned with towers with extreme precision as being less than a tenth of an inch off could lead to crop loss.
The feeding system is automated and set according to plant needs. Aaron explained that the system is fully circular and uses an average of 5 gallons of water per day. Water and nutrients that are not absorbed by the plants are recuperated and re-injected in the system.
Although an organic label for hydroponic products is not fully recognized in the United States, Aaron specified that they grow without using any harmful chemicals or pest controllers.
However, Aaron explained that they do use fertilizers as nutrients for the plants. “We may not be able to say that our products are organic, but people now understand that even if we use fertilizers, our products are low-carbon footprint and locally grown with no cides,” he said.
Although a traditional container farm is supposed to require about 20 hours of work per week, Aaron explained that they were able to improve and optimize procedures to lower the amount of operational time required per farm. Moreover, data shows that they were growing close to 1/2 acre of food in 1% of the space! As a part of their commitment to the local economy and community, Hammock Greens employs and trains at-risk or formerly-homeless staff.
The Next Steps
Hammock Greens’ farms are spread throughout the Miami region. There is one at the Marriott Harbour Beach Hotel, three at the Alexander Nursery in Davie, and two in Overtown.
Moving forward, they are now looking to make their farms more energy efficient by adding solar panels. They are also aiming to use renewable resource packaging while reducing their farms’ overall environmental footprint.
In collaboration with The Lotus House, a women’s shelter, they also want to further develop their internship program. These internships provide participants (mostly single mothers) with a useful skills-set that can help them re-enter the labor market. Hammock Greens aims to improve their impact on the community and to reach these goals, they have decided to seek funding support through a Kickstarter campaign.
Have a look at their video to get a visual idea of their work and gain a better understanding of what they are trying to accomplish. With your help, they could expand their role in the community, and solidify their farms as a model for urban farms in the United States.
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