E d Harrison—founder and owner of Smarter Gardens, based in Columbia, Tennessee—grew up in a farming environment. Dairy farming was a vibrant industry when he was a boy in the 1960s, and when Ed was 12, he’d move from farm to farm in his area helping milk cows, ship the products and take care of the grounds. Then, he hit a wall.
“I worked in that industry long enough to be absolutely convinced I never wanted to be a farmer,” he says.
He loved growing food, but he saw too many farms close and too many people lose their jobs, whether due to stricter regulations or just old-fashioned bad luck. And to him, farming didn’t seem all that sexy anyway. His father was in technology, and since Ed was interested in his father’s line of work, he had to choose.
“At that time, you couldn’t bring tech onto the farm.”
Ultimately, decided that he was better off in a different line of work.
Harrison went off to college and studied science and economics. When he graduated, he got involved in solar energy. He later spent some time in architecture and finance, and he even did a brief stint working in the gambling industry in Las Vegas. Finally, he settled in information technology, and that lasted for 30 years.
But he always kept a garden.
Ed began to wonder if there was a way to marry the technology he worked with on a daily basis with his love for gardening. That’s when he came across hydroponics. Hydroponic farming is a subset of hydroculture, the method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent.
Ed had never done hydroponic farming before, but he happened to meet some folks who were more acquainted with it. After a casual conversation about social enterprise and the ways in which hydroponics might fit into that endeavor, they started collaborating and experimenting.
They never really intended on a commercial venture.
The experiment fizzled out a bit, but Ed happened upon another opportunity to stay in the world of farming, this time in Leiper’s Fork. But after some research, he found that the land in Leiper’s Fork is subject to agricultural preservation zoning, making farming on it very difficult. “There are a lot more can’ts than there are cans,” he says.
Ed finally came to the conclusion that it would be better to move to downtown Nashville, find a warehouse and start growing indoors. It would mean fewer restrictions and better possibilities. And like the entrepreneur he is, he did some market research, ran the numbers, and to his surprise, found that there was a good chance at making some money.
“I began the process from being an extremely casual gardener to a commercial farmer in a high capital business like hydroponic.”
It started out as a simple operation in 2013—in a Nashville apartment, no less. But thanks to some tenacity and constant revision, he’s moved from that apartment to a 347,000-square-foot factory where he occupies a chunk of the space and is looking to expand.
How did he expand so quickly? Technology.
Smarter Gardens is really part produce farm, part tech startup. “What I did for a career—information technology—became one of the most valuable components in operating a farming business,” Ed says.
Hydroponic allows him to avoid what he calls the “plant and pray” method. That is, a lot of traditional farming relies on planting seeds in the ground and then hoping it rains enough to produce a crop. But in the controlled hydroponic environment, farmers are responsible for providing the plants with the parameters that optimize growth. That controlled environment agricultural setting almost guarantees yield if you can get the processes right. And technology is what makes those processes more efficient over time.
Technology makes it easier for Ed to adapt and it gives him the ability to organize information and move forward.
“Your farm becomes a laboratory where every process is able to be better than the one before because you’re measuring it.”
The first things that Ed grew at Smarter Gardens were basic plants: lettuce, bok choy, etc. But now he’s into all manner of vegetation. Sunlight is still the best for certain kinds of produce, and growing them indoors is not ideal. But Ed is looking to expand to the parking lot where they can use greenhouses to start growing even more.
With Ed’s methods, farmers aren’t limited to certain areas of California or other extra-fertile farming soils. They can set up shop anywhere. And they also aren’t beholden to farmers’ markets and grocery stores. In fact, he’s starting an online ordering process that will interrupt the usual supply chains and let Smarter Gardens sell directly to consumers.