Cathie Anderson

‘Veggielante’ helps folks grow food in small spaces

James Brady, left, and Larry Wilson installed adaptive growing modules at Pasadena Avenue Elementary in the San Juan School District.
James Brady, left, and Larry Wilson installed adaptive growing modules at Pasadena Avenue Elementary in the San Juan School District.

Friends tease James Brady about his devotion to urban farming, calling him a veggielante and a veggie preacher, but that doesn’t stop his proselytizing. Brady and his business partners create microscale systems that allow schoolchildren and others to grow produce in small or nontraditional spaces.

They recently sold nine of their “adaptive growing modules” to Sacramento-area schools such as Luther Burbank High School, John Still and Pasadena Avenue Elementary School. The modules consist of raised storage bins hooked up to a recirculating water system and filled with a composted growing medium. A timer, which can be powered by solar energy, turns the drip system on and off as directed.

“Part of your next meal should come from no (more) than 10-15 feet from your kitchen table,” Brady said, “so that means if you’re in an apartment building, you can put a bin like this on your patio or we could design these and put them on a rooftop or blacktop. It doesn’t matter. We can grow in small spaces. You can get food to feed your family, lower your carbon footprint and hopefully contribute to making your family healthier.”

Although some schools already have plots of land set aside for growing crops, Brady said the growing modules from will show students they don’t necessarily need land to grow produce or to create a crop-based business. Instead, he said, they can create such an environment.

“If they can’t go to college when they come out of high school, they should be able to make (a living) by simply growing food in a small space in their backyard,” Brady said. “We have an urban ag ordinance in Sacramento, which would allow you to grow and sell food to your neighbors, a farmers market, a roadside stand. There are some restricted hours, but at the end of the day, this is really about economics and trying to lift people out of poverty.”

Brady, who is 62 and lives in Natomas, said he grew up on a farm in Alabama, prepping the fields in the winter and spring and harvesting in summer and fall. One of his partners, Larry Wilson, 66, had gardened from the time he was 6 years old, but an injury prevented him from using a hoe or shovel later in life. So, he began looking for other ways to get his gardening fix.

“I bought a pound of worms, and I was going to become a worm farmer,” Wilson said. “Then I found out you don’t make a lot of money out of worms.”

That was because Wilson didn’t have enough worms to produce much of the nutrient-rich castings that the worms excrete. Instead, he said, he began using the castings to brew a “compost tea” that other gardeners bought and used to fertilize their growing beds. But he kept dreaming about having a garden he could operate. That’s when they started working on the adaptive growth modules, which range in cost from $500 to $3,000 depending on size. Brady and Wilson will install the units. Each bin requires a limited amount of growth material, made from worm castings and composted materials.

Once you get it running, Wilson said, there are no weeds because they carefully control what goes into their growing medium and what can get into the space. The recirculating drip system uses 90 percent less water than beds in the ground, he and Brady said. They cover the module with a mesh screen to keep birds, squirrels and other pests from their crops. The growth modules can be run as vermicompost units with worms in the bins, hydroponically with gravel, or aquaponically with fish waste nourishing the plants.

“When we do plant worms in them,” said Wilson, a Concow resident, “they will eat the compost and turn it into castings. The castings are going to be dissolved as the water circulates. But eventually it will build up and, in three to four years, you’re going to have to take out about four feet of castings that are worth $20-30 a foot. And the worms are worth $50 a pound. You’re going to have money you’re going to harvest. ... That will help defray the cost of operation.

“If you don’t plant worms in there, you don’t have to worry about that. All you do is top-dress (with compost) and keep going. I’ve had mine in operation for going on five years, and I’ve never taken it all the way out. It will go indefinitely.”

Teresa Cummings, the principal at Pasadena Avenue Elementary, said the Con10u2Farm modules provide the type of hands-on learning that kids enjoy.

“It takes the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) and puts them into real life, where the kids can learn about vermiculture, hydroponics and aquaponics, using the worm castings to fertilize the soil and grow organic plants.”

Reggie Brown, the principal for John Still’s elementary and middle school campuses, said his campus lies within a food desert, an urban area where it’s difficult for families to buy fresh, affordable, high-quality food. Consequently, the campus worked with Sacramento County to identify state and federal funding to teach children how to plant and tend gardens and why fresh produce is good for nutrition. That garden and the Con10u2Farm modules are funded by the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education grants.

“We’re excited because we have our kitchen right there,” said Brown, pointing to a door less than 10 feet from the school’s adaptive growing module, “and we’re looking at ways for our students to do farm-to-fork themselves and make stuff that they could then produce at home.”

Vice Principal Chase Tafoya added: “Some of our families come from an agriculture background, and it’s just another way to build engagement with our families. A lot of our kids learn in different ways, and this opens the door to project-based learning that we can start offering to our kids and really to the community as well.”

In the past, Brown said, students and faculty have invited neighborhood residents to a farmers market stocked with produce from the school’s harvest. And, even though summer break has begun, kids will continue to tend the gardens and growing modules as part of a summer program.

Wilson said he’s looking forward to hearing about uses for the system that none of the inventors anticipated: “I made a mistake one time and dropped my pepper packet seed into a bin, and about 200 of them sprouted. Well, rather than being discouraged, I took them out and spread them into pots. So I raised 200 starts. ... Somebody could have a business selling starts. Or, they could have an herb garden, selling herbs. They work wonderfully with herbs.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee