Lettuce help feed the world

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

Every day about 9 billion people on this planet try to figure out what they will be eating for dinner.

Since 2009, one urban farmer, Bral Spight, the 42-year-old co-founder and CEO/president of Chicago-based Urbanponics, along with his partners, Lee Reid and Dennis Deer, as well as his brother and father, Donn and Carl Spight of Oak Park, are trying to help.

In a roughly 2,000-square-foot, re-purposed warehouse space, this former Oak Parker and his partners are getting their hands wet by hydroponically growing over 500 Bibb and Boston lettuce plants, plus an array of culinary herbs that are produced, harvested and sold locally to various vendors. Everything here is done sans soil, in a nutrient-rich water solution in a hydroponic garden bed that features a high-tech lighting and temperature control system that facilitates it all.

Spight is also executive director of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses education initiative in Chicago. Throughout his career, Spight says, he has made an effort to advance an understanding of the intersection of public, private, and civic interests in the development of mixed-use urban areas. Previously, he was chief of staff with the Public Building Commission of Chicago, a $350-million enterprise charged with developing new police, fire, library, and education projects, and has been a developer with Joseph Freed and Associates as well as with SIVIC Real Estate LLC, a firm he established in 2002 to pursue retail and mixed-use urban development projects.

Spight, who resides with his family in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, but who still has family members in Oak Park, has a B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and an MBA from the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

On a recent Friday, WJ interviewed Spight in his workspace for a peek at his high-tech hydroponics operation.

Are you an urban gardener?

My first exposure to non-traditional agricultural concepts was as an engagement manager at McKinsey & Company. Now I jokingly refer to myself as a recovering chemical engineer and business consultant because I was a practicing engineer who wanted to do something different.

As a start-up, who are your clients?

We are currently shipping our lettuce product to a couple of Mariano stores in the city, we have been a summer vendor in the Whole Foods chain, and we are working with an operation called Fresh Produce, based in Bartlett.

How did you learn about this alternative way to grow crops?

Awhile back, one of my clients was Monsanto. I didn't really work on GMO [genetically modified organisms] stuff. I worked on some really cool nontraditional business opportunities where we looked at things like bugs that eat bugs and mycorrhizal fungi. Back then, we were also looking at alternative crop systems, including aeroponics, hydroponics and aquaponics in countries that were overseas and in regions of North America.

What is hydroponic agriculture?

Hydroponics simply means "water works," which, by the way, is a Greek term. We have two primary types of systems here: a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) process where we have a 100-gallon reservoir and a commercial grade formulation of fertilizer.

How do you grow plants hydroponically?

We start from seed and let them grow in the nursery until they are large enough to transplant over into the system. Literally, it takes about 30 days to get the lettuces to a productive size that can be harvested and sold to a vendor.

Why have you made this career change?

To me, growing food is a wholesome activity. When I was a consultant, I did a lot of financial manipulation, and I was a spreadsheet jockey, doing a lot of mergers and acquisitions and at the end of the day, yes, you provided value for the shareholder if you achieved your objective. But whenever you did splits or merges, 14 months later, when the identity of the company gets completely wiped out, for me it didn't leave a lot of lasting value as far as what mark was I leaving in life or what was I accomplishing. I really felt strongly about the mission part of this business even though we are for-profit. The idea is trying to take a small business and upset the apple cart, so to speak, in the way some folks are thinking about growing. Just as importantly for me is the thing about how to make a difference in communities, especially as an African American. I feel that I am blessed by the opportunity to have a role to play in all that.

Any advice, one alternative urban farmer to potentially another?

The best thing and cheapest, most efficient way to experiment with hydroponic growing is to do some Internet research, then visit a few people who are already doing it. After that, buy a small hydroponic hobby kit and scratch and sniff.

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