Is it possible to grow superfood in the city? Interview with Lisa Merkle, co-founder of Imagine Farms

Lisa Merkle, co-founder of Imagine Farms, about how to successfully grow superfood in the city and think out of the box.

Is it possible to grow superfood in the city? Interview with Lisa Merkle, co-founder of Imagine Farms

HortiAdvisor: For many people, growing plants on a larger scale is something unimaginable and difficult to implement. How did you get so much motivation with your sister to work in the AgTech sector? What were the ideas behind your actions?

Lisa Merkle: We were too innocent to be intimidated when we started. When we started Imagine Farms, we were both at a crossroads in our lives and the opportunity to be part of an emerging industry; AgTech, Controlled Environment Ag, growing healthy food for our community in a way that is considerate of the earth's resources was an opportunity that deeply excited both of us.

Lisa Merkle (Co-founder & Business Development) and Cheryl Arnold (Co-founder & President)

HA: Where did the idea for the name Imagine Farms come from?

LM: We imagined a better way to grow healthy food. Disrupting a clunky, fragile food system by integrating emerging technology, engaging with accelerated innovation requires a lot of imagination.

HA: Creating Imagine Farms was certainly quite a challenge. How do you recall the beginnings of a developing brand?

LM: People want to know who grows their food, where their food comes from, how to make choices that are healthy and sustainable. Engaging with our community at the farmers market shaped the brand that Imagine Farms is today. Growing vibrant food in community, with community and for community is our way of being of service.

HA: The yogis emphasize a completely vegetarian diet. The plants that you produce, taking into account their nutritional properties and beneficial effects on health, can easily be classified among the leaders. Has your being a sports person influenced your decision about which plant species you are producing?

LM: I believe that you are what you eat. Not just the food you ingest but the company you keep, the music you listen to, what you watch on TV, etc. I want to keep it High Vibe - so for me, that means fresh nourishing food, that is delicious, free from pesticides and harsh chemicals, grown with love.

HA: What is your favorite, most delicious plant variety and why?

LM: My favorite crop at the farms is a leaf that is a hybrid of a Kale and a Broccoli - it is dark green leaf, we grow it to a baby so it is forkable. It’s sweet like a young broccoli, tender enough to eat raw and hearty enough for a saute. I like having options in the fridge, crispy lettuces for a raw salad and heartier brassicas with a warm meal.

Green leaves produced by Imagine Farms are an excellent basis for healthy meals

HA: Imagine Farms is growing rapidly. What cultivation area do you currently have?

LM: Our current grow footprint is 2030 sq ft. Our total facility footprint is 5000 sq ft, this includes accessory areas for farm activities: cleaning, seeding, materials storage, pack room, cold storage and a small office. We are in the process of designing a facility 10 - 20x the size of our current facility. Food production is an essential service; this isn’t a trend or a gimmick, moving food production indoors is necessary. It has become apparent that our resources can’t accommodate the way we have been growing food. We are running out of time. I think that all aspects of agriculture will evolve dramatically over the next 5 years. It has to.

Vertical production of green leaves at Imagine Farms

HA: Currently, how many tons of food are you able to produce in a year?

LM: Our current facility produces 75,000 lbs of Leafy Greens at full capacity annually. That yield is 55x more produce per unit of area when compared with a conventional farm.

HA: In hydroponic cultivation, you use containers. I think it's a great idea to shorten the logistics chain and supply the closest customers. What influenced the decision to use containers?

LM: We’ve used the shipping containers as a shell and transformed them into grow rooms - our system is designed as a group of 8 containers; 6 grow rooms, a packing area and cold storage and then a nursery and cleaning station. For us, this was an accessible way to get started. We’re planning to replicate the idea of grow rooms in a warehouse - this requires a substantial investment into equipment and real estate - we used the shipping containers to generate a strong proof of concept. It worked - the entire farm is pre-sold weekly and we’ve established traction on 4 different distribution channels which can be challenging.

HA: We can say Imagine Farms is a superfood producer, will you agree with me?

LM: Absolutely, Leafy Greens have a ton of health benefits! We just launched the ‘shroom room - growing gourmet mushrooms and they have crazy health benefits - Lions Mane Mushrooms actually look like a brain which translates as brain benefits and they are delicious!

Imagine Farms fresh leaves of herbs and vegetables
Superfoods produced by Imagine Farms consist of fresh leaves of herbs and vegetables

HA: Your business is guided by the zero waste idea, which undoubtedly makes the Imagine Farms brand attractive to customers who care not only about their nutrition, but also about nature. What are the additional benefits of hydroponic cultivation that you use at Imagine Farms?

LM: The most relevant benefits of indoor vertical farming are the water savings and land conservation - we use 97% less water than a conventional field farm and the idea that the more agriculture we can bring into a controlled environment, we can return fields that have been stripped of arable soil to be rewilded. We can completely reorganize the food supply chain by bringing the food in close proximity to where people live, responding to their needs and wants - and - heal the planet at the same time.

HA: As more and more people in the world live in cities, urban farming is seen as a sustainable solution. Do you think urban farming will develop to such an extent that it will be able to meet the basic demand for fresh vegetables among the population?

LM: Again, I think we are going to see a complete transformation of agriculture practices over the next 5 years. Indoor vertical farms aren’t the singular answer. Innovation to enable regenerative farming practices will expand and support for home gardeners and urban farm projects will continue to grow. Technology will create efficiencies throughout the existing system in areas worth rehabilitating. Innovation is coming that we haven’t even dreamt up yet. The awareness is established, we can’t go back.

Imagine Farms team at work

HA: A healthy lifestyle without interfering with the natural environment is undoubtedly a trend that will continue to develop. Therefore, in the near future, we will probably face an increased demand for healthy and organic food. Do you plan to expand the range of crops for this reason?

LM: We have vetted over 100+ crops at our current facility. We believe that the ability to grow a variety of crops under one roof is necessary to generate a holistic business, serving the needs of our customers. And, it’s delicious! R&D will play a big role in our next production facility.

HA: Unfortunately, a large part of society, as well as some institutions, claim that plants grown in soilless conditions are harmful and deprived of nutritional value. What's your opinion on the subject?

LM: The intelligence lives in the seed - we create the ideal conditions and the plants thrive. I consider the fact that produce degrades in both flavor and nutrition as soon as it is harvested. Food is being transported all over the world and it isn't just our leafy greens traveling 3000 miles from California. It is pineapples from Costa Rica and Apples from New Zealand. Without soil, we are missing a diverse microbiome. I predict that we are going to see innovation in technology cover this missing piece of the puzzle.

HA: Who is the main recipient of your products? Do you focus more on individual clients or restaurants?

LM: We work with some of the best restaurants in Miami, chefs are seeking quality ingredients. We are also on the shelf at the grocery store Milam's Markets, a South Florida Chain, and we have a direct to consumer business with a recurring subscription model.

HA: The food you produce is free from pesticides and chemicals - this is a great idea, especially since we live in such a polluted environment. How do you deal with pests during production?

LM: We grow in a pristine environment, food safety and cleanliness are top priorities.

HA: As you say many times in interviews and broadcasts, you are a female farmer. Women in the agricultural and horticultural industry occupying high positions are rare. When someone comes across articles on the web about you, or watches your speeches, the image of a strong, determined and extremely creative, talented person is drawn. While I personally think this is just the beginning of Imagine Farms, I think you are already an inspiration and a role model for many people. How do you feel in the role of a farmer and a co-manager of plant production?

LM: Honestly, I feel awkward, like an alien in a room full of manchinos. Cheryl and I are incredibly motivated to create authentic value in this crazy world, for us, this is defined by growing healthy food and people. Our team is learning with us, it’s exciting to be at the beginning of an industry that is taking off. We’re pioneers - every single one of us - each team member is so valuable. We’re here to create - so let’s generate some high vibes!

HA: It's been a while since starting the hydroponic business. What has changed in your life from the perspective of those years?

When we started we thought it would be ‘cool’ to grow food using less water in Miami which has a very limited growing season. And, now we see how fragile our food system is and how crucial it is to stay strong and resilient. The UN is predicting food shortages. Fertilizer is now in limited supply, we use a fraction of the fertilizer when compared to a field farm - all of these points matter because food, healthy food is essential. We went from thinking ‘this is cool’ to acting with a sense of incredible urgency to grow and scale the business.

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