In 2014, Local Roots CEO Eric Ellestad built a farm inside a repurposed, 40-foot-long shipping container in a parking lot in Hawthorne. As with many young startups, his company's ambitions were grand: to solve the biggest challenges of modern agriculture.
With indoor, climate-controlled crops, Local Roots' urban farms were intended to conserve water while growing pesticide-free vegetables at a faster rate than traditional outdoor farms. Two years later, inside a large warehouse in Vernon, the company was successfully growing 30 acres' worth of lettuce using no pesticides and a small fraction of the water Ellestad used when he started.
By developing LED lighting and a recirculating hydroponic watering system, Ellestand and his team are able to stimulate rapid plant growth and use 97% less water than outdoor farming. As agriculture accounts for such a large portion of the state's water usage — especially apparent in this time of severe drought — Ellestad's technology could be a key solution to conservation.
That said, his system is not yet patented, which explains why photographs are forbidden inside the shipping containers in Vernon. When Ellestad opens the door to the “farm” (shipping container), a blinding florescent pink light radiates from the module. It's as though he has opened a door to the future. In many ways, his upstart company has.
Local Roots' modular system allows for micro farms — enclosed inside shipping containers — to be delivered and set up anywhere in the world. In theory, communities with winter climates could produce crops year-round. And though the whole project might seem “unnatural” at first glance, everything about the lettuce is as organic, or more so, than any organic produce on the market. The highly controlled environment is precisely what helps to avoid pesticides, GMOs and herbicides.
The lettuce is also more nutrient-rich. “We take the same seed and then create a more controlled environment around it,” explains Ellestad, referring to the seeds that get “planted” onto a soilless shelf inside the luminous shipping container. “We maximize the potential of that plant. Through hydroponics, we can know exactly what kind of nutrients it gets. We tend to get higher nutrient concentrations.”
There are several economic benefits to indoor farming. When you move crops indoors, you leave variability outdoors. Changing weather has no effect on the perfect little bulbs of bright green Butterhead lettuce growing on the shelves inside Ellestad's containers. And just as volatility is a produce buyer's worst enemy, Local Roots could be his new best friend.
Local Roots is currently growing only kale, Butterhead lettuce and spring-mix greens for local customers — which include Mendocino Farms, Tender Greens and the commissary at SpaceX — but the intention is to eventually branch out into other delicate crops such as fruits and berries. Greens are the most conducive to this system, as they don't survive the lengthy supply chain that more hearty vegetables like potatoes can easily endure.
Ellestad's goals for Local Roots go beyond environmental and ethical. He hopes to implement his farms in communities that have little access to produce. He hopes that indoor farming can be part of the solution to “food deserts.” As he explains it, “We’re starting to bring commercial production into urban environments. We’re able to start to re-create these agricultural jobs that used to be the fabric of our communities in this country. We were an agricultural economy to begin with. This was the basis of our economy. So many cities and communities have lost that. Kids these days, they don’t know where their food comes from and how it’s grown.” Ellestad's colleagues laugh at him for using the phrase “kids these days.” After all, the entrepreneur is only 28 years old.