Linda Chiem, Reporter - Pacific Business News
Honolulu entrepreneur Alan Joaquin is literally taking organic farming to new heights by planting organic farms on the rooftops of buildings across Hawaii, using a proprietary new technology he has developed over the past several years.
Joaquin, who calls himself an “ecopreneur,” is promoting sustainable agriculture in urban landscapes with the goal of feeding Hawaii residents with more locally grown organic vegetables without having to compete for hard-to-come-by farm land.
His niche business, FarmRoof Hawaii, marries new technology and an untapped segment of real estate. He intends to roll it out statewide and eventually market it to major metropolitan areas such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York City later this year.
The technology involves mesh “biosock” modules packed with a soil-less compost blend of antioxidants, nutrients and minerals and outfitted with an irrigation system. Joaquin says it represents an evolution in the sustainable-food movement.
The modules can be installed on concrete rooftops to eventually produce “superfood” leafy greens such as kale, arugula and Asian mustard greens. FarmRoof Hawaii already has started selling to the likes of Whole Foods Market, Alan Wong Restaurant, Halekulani, 12th Avenue Grill and SALT.
Certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the company touts itself as the world’s first and only certified organic green roof system.
The challenge has been getting people and customers to understand the FarmRoof concept. It’s a proprietary system and not a product sold in stores. However, Joaquin’s earlier version of the FarmRoof, a gardening system packed into a smaller version of the “biosock” tube called the Wiki Garden, was sold in stores such as City Mill for two years before he pulled the product line last year to focus on expanding FarmRoof Hawaii beyond the everyday consumer level.
“We cherry-pick our partners because all these people that we’ve started selling to are people we felt could expose our technology in the best way,” Joaquin said. “They know what we’re doing, what we’re about, and give us credibility. We don’t want our technology to be a commodity or a product. It’s a brand and a commercial farming operation that we’re looking for other like-minded ‘ecopreneurs’ to pass the technology on to.”
The company launched in 2008 and went through two years of research and development without generating revenue. By 2010, it generated $64,000 in sales with the Wiki Garden. Now, going forward with FarmRoof, which currently employs eight people, Joaquin envisions multiple revenue streams that will include selling the organically grown vegetables direct to grocers and restaurants as well as through community-supported agriculture programs.
But the bigger money makers likely will be the licensing agreements and royalties to come when FarmRoof starts licensing its rooftop farming system to interested operators or building owners, all of whom will be required to attend “FarmRoof University” at the company’s Waimanalo farm to learn how to properly install and operate the system. He declined to disclose what those licensing fees will be.
“When people think of farming, it’s so unsexy, it’s not glitzy or glamorous,” Joaquin said. “This is such a nontraditional approach to it that it’s catering to the next generation interested in sustainability and the triple bottom line.”
Whole Foods Market, which sells FarmRoof’s packaged greens at its Kahala Mall store, currently is in discussions with both FarmRoof and Kahala Mall management to potentially install a rooftop farm at that location, Joaquin said.
“FarmRoof is a tremendously exciting farm and business because it is transforming previously dead urban spaces in Honolulu into vibrant, productive places,” said Claire Sullivan, community and vendor relations coordinator for Whole Foods Market in Hawaii. “This is a great contribution to the development of a robust local food system in Hawaii, and helps challenge the notion that Honolulu and Oahu are just markets, not producers, of food.”
Joaquin admits that it often has been a tough sell getting other building owners and operators to open their doors to FarmRoof to install a rooftop farming system because of concerns about weight and liability. He said such concerns are mitigated by the fact that the system is lightweight at five pounds per square feet, keeping it well within the load capacities of most building rooftops.
Still, he’s open to crafting deals and agreements that include profit-sharing or paying a small rental fee to buildings to gain access to rooftops.
The payoff for the building owner or manager is reduced energy costs because the building is cooled by the “green roof,” he said. Also, the buzz and curiosity factor attached to a novelty like a farm roof could help drive sales through more foot traffic or attract new tenants to help lower building vacancy rates.
“Our slogan is more than a farm, more than food, and what we represent is sustainable hope and vision,” Joaquin said. “What we sell is not just food; what we’re selling is nutrition, wellness, respect, and that all comes from the people. It’s like the saying, ‘All boats rise with the tide,’ so we want all these small local farmers to rise with us because we’re so visible and we’re so sticky right now.”
Joaquin, who is married to Hawaii News Now television anchor Tannya Joaquin, has 20 years of experience in agriculture, engineering, environmental protection and landscape construction. Despite his experience, he said he was rejected in the early days by banks, investment groups and philanthropists who dismissed the FarmRoof concept as a pipe dream.
“I just said I’ll prove it, that I can do this bootstrapped, and now we have equity position where we call the shots, but I’ve personally invested my own savings into building this company into what it is,” he said. “We’ve worked through all these kinks, the system is workable, and we do need to expand, we do need more employees, and we do need more capital.”
FarmRoof HawaiiSustainable-agriculture businessFounder and President:
41-829 Kakaina St., Waimanalo, HI 96795
Launching a niche business in sustainable agriculture using new technology and urban real estate.
• Invest in research and development, guard your intellectual property to stay competitive
and viable, and continually educate people on the concept.
• Be selective with partners and collaborators by choosing like-minded individuals or
companies with similar goals and visions of sustainability to add credibility to the product.
• Customize your “pitch” to building operators and owners with tailor-made agreements
that promote mutual benefits either through profit-sharing or rental fees.