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Colorado’s newest farmers are YouTube-taught, social justice-minded and preaching the gospel of microgreens

With the launch of Emerald Gardens near Bennett, two Ohio high-school buddies ventured into the world of hydroponic farming, with an eye toward social justice

Emerald Gardens microgreens co-owners Dave Demerling, 33, left, of Arvada, and Roberto Meza, 32, right, of Bennett, tend to some of their crop in their hydroponic farm's greenhouse in Bennett on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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BENNETT — A fire smolders in a metal barrel laid on its side, a makeshift fireplace warding off the late-afternoon chill and lending a wood-smoke aroma to the farm’s open-air “hangout spot.” A tea kettle balances on top.

The Emerald Gardens farm, rising bit by bit on 35 acres north of town, has a rustic, pioneering feel, which seems appropriate considering its founders, 33-year-old Dave Demerling and 32-year-old Roberto Meza, began their farming careers just a few years ago by watching YouTube videos. Every day reveals a new frontier.

Now, the passive solar greenhouse they constructed on land bought just two years ago has them on the cusp of profitability, producing a variety of microgreens, shoots of herbs and vegetables harvested in their very early development, when flavor and nutrients run high. And their approach has shined a new light on the face of the American farmer: entrepreneur guided by social justice.

Though they initially marketed their product primarily to fine restaurants that use them in salads and garnishes, Meza and Demerling have broadened their outreach, preaching the virtues of microgreens for everything from delicious snacks to nutritious smoothies, all while adding to a statewide desire to bolster local food sources.

Kohlrabi grows hydroponically in the Emerald Gardens microgreens greenhouse in Bennett on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Andy Colwell, special to The Colorado Sun)

They’ve developed a fan base in some grocery stores, and soon will be delivering to the Boulder Valley School District and other institutional customers like hospitals. 

As first-generation farmers, they’re also breaking new ground. High-school buddies in Canton, Ohio, they migrated to opposite coasts for college before reuniting and realizing their visions had shifted. The fulfillment they sought turned out to be rooted in agriculture.

“I don’t think of it in terms of generation,” says Meza, who pursued a career in art before finding his passion for growing things. “We’re in a new stage in our food production where farmers have different roles and responsibilities than they had in the past. Sometimes we’re policy advocates, activists, engineers, researchers, creating new marketing opportunities.”

Demerling, whose career passed through video production, boils it down further: “I just want to feed people.” 

In large part, this process unfolds in a 3,000 square-foot building where passive solar design and a geothermal system that cycles air through underground tubes maintain the temperature around an optimal 75 degrees during cold weather. A swamp cooler, powered by solar panels, keeps the microgreens comfortable on hot days.

Though generically this type of growing could be called hydroponic, Meza notes that unlike most hydroponic growing, he and Demerling use no synthetic nutrients and no soil.

Trays of plants grow on up to five levels of metal shelving, in long rows connected to water tubes that soak the jute — or another plant-based fiber where seeds have been planted. Emerald Gardens grows several varieties, including such mainstays as broccoli, sunflower, pea, radish and kohlrabi.

Cristy Dice, a produce safety specialist with Colorado State University’s regional extension, notes that hydroponic produce farming may be an unconventional avenue for now, but she sees it expanding both in Colorado and across the country. And as with any produce, the focus must be on practices and hygiene that prevent contamination.

“There’s challenges to both systems,” Dice says. “Outside, more things are out of your control — the weather, animals. Inside, there’s more under your control, but there are other challenges to make sure you don’t have things getting into your containers. They’re making a ready-to-eat product, they’re taking that seriously and focused on it. That’s to their credit, for sure.”

For Meza and Demerling, people have always been a key ingredient. That’s why they regularly engage the public at farmer’s markets and food co-ops to share the gospel of fresh and local. 

“Everybody should know where their food comes from,” Demerling says. 

And they should know what they’re eating.

Bright green seedlings take root in the germination room at Emerald Gardens microgreens as co-owner Dave Demerling tends to other young plants in the background, in Bennett on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Especially with microgreens, which are not as easily recognizable as a piece of fruit,” Meza says. “Most people at first sight see them as sprouts, which are very different from microgreens. When we begin to talk to them, educate them and share our experiences growing them, and the benefit we’ve seen eating them. That’s when we start to have more of a relationship with our customers, who then support us because there’s an emotional connection. They’re not just buying microgreens. They’re really supporting our mission.”

Though the farm is primarily a two-man operation (with extra help hired if they fall behind their tight schedule), their business melds attention to number crunching with the imperative of reaching out and informing the public — to the point that they’ll gladly teach you how to grow your own microgreens.

“Most people give up,” Demerling says with a laugh. He knows full well the time and attention required.

Meza’s and Demerling’s 2013 arrival in Colorado, right after the state had been hit by massive flooding, also coincided with the implementation of cannabis legalization. They reasoned that more people would be drawn to Colorado, continuing a population influx that means more people to feed with what they call an “underdeveloped food system” largely dependent on trucking in fresh products from other states.

“When that became apparent to us, we realized we needed a comprehensive approach to our farming operation,” Meza says. “That’s when I started to create partnerships with different organizations. Since we’re always compelled by social movements and social justice, it became a no-brainer to incorporate that into our farming approach.”

Demerling and Meza, both children of engineers, grew up friends in Ohio, but in high school they also realized something else: they made a good team on school projects like the videos they both enjoyed.

But after graduation, Demerling migrated to Cal State-Long Beach. Meza headed to Bard College in upstate New York. Both earned a degree in video and electronic arts, though each took it in a different direction.

Demerling parlayed his into various online video editing gigs. Meza took a more artistic approach, producing multimedia gallery installations of what he calls “experimental art.” But he never really felt that he connected with audiences the way he’d hoped.

“I just had trouble translating my concepts in ways that everybody could understand,” he says. “But I realized I needed to find a steady flow of income, and I didn’t want to write grants my entire life. So I decided to get my master’s and hopefully teach.”

Farm dog Yoda basks in the sun near gardening tools outside the Emerald Gardens microgreens hydroponic greenhouse in Bennett on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He started graduate school at MIT, but took a hiatus to further reflect on what he wanted to do with his life. In addition, he battled health issues that left him unable to leave his parents’ house. Then two things happened: He found the tiny, 15-year-old hairless dog he calls Yoda; and he found satisfaction growing food in a small hydroponic setup in his basement, guided by YouTube videos. 

Healthier food made him feel better. So did his connection to it. He began working at a biodynamic hobby farm, learning about outdoor agriculture from the owner, who mentored him and also took him on occasional trips to exchange ideas with nearby Amish families. That experience instilled in him the notion of farming as a public service.

Meanwhile, Demerling independently began undertaking virtually the exact same indoor experiments with his free time in California, with supplies and ideas found at Home Depot and the same YouTube videos Meza viewed. And his thoughts mirrored Meza’s when it came to abandoning the video degree to get his hands dirty.

When he returned to Ohio for a visit, he met Meza out at the farm and got a quick course on soil and agronomy, things he’d never considered while focused on hydroponics.

“Dave came out to the farm and we just connected,” Meza recalls. “We knew we could work well together, we knew we had a synergy. Then he told me this is what he wanted to do.

“I said, ‘Set it up.’”

As it turned out, Demerling had been doing some market research. He had looked at Florida, Texas, California and around New England. Those areas appeared “super saturated” with the type of hydroponic growing he had in mind. And then there was Colorado, where the market appeared less intense, and land prices — at least farmland — was within reach.

“But I ended up here,” he admits, “because I love the mountains.”

Wendy White, a marketing specialist for Colorado Proud, a program under the state Department of Agriculture that promotes locally grown or raised products, says she has been getting a lot of calls from startup operations wanting to know the agricultural landscape, rules and regulations in Colorado. 

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in interest over the last six months to a year,” she says. “It’s great to see a new generation of farmers and ranchers that don’t have that background but are led to it, or desire to participate in the food system. 

“Farmers like Roberto are connecting with his customers and community, and it’s important for them to tell the story of how food gets to the table. Consumers are so many generations removed from any connection with a farm or ranch. To tell these stories and engage customers is important.”

Demerling moved west in 2013 and Meza followed six months later. Demerling’s uncle had passed away and left him some money, which ignited the serious planning for the farming operation. 

Emerald Gardens microgreens co-owners Dave Demerling, 33, left, of Arvada, and Roberto Meza, 32, right, of Bennett, work with coconut husk coir before planting seeds at their hydroponic farm in Bennett on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The partners started small in Broomfield, but soon looked to expand and seek economies of scale. Demerling began scouting properties and finally settled on this parcel east of Denver International Airport, where the intermittent whistle of jets in the landing pattern regularly interrupts conversation.

Demerling now lives with his wife, Teresa, and their infant daughter, Madelyn, in Arvada. Teresa, a nurse practitioner, has assumed the role of primary breadwinner and the farm’s biggest investor while it gets off the ground.

Meza bought a used trailer, parked it inside an outbuilding for even better insulation from the elements and lives, with the company of Yoda, at Emerald Gardens full time, because the exacting process demands near-constant supervision. 

“I just have to kind of be here, and enjoy this moment in my life,” Meza says.

He usually finishes work around 7 or 8 p.m., jumps on the computer to catch up on email, network and “figure out projects I can propose to Dave and see if they’re possible. Mostly, I figure out what the next step is, and plan for the next day.”

It’s a relentless schedule for both of them, but a rewarding one. Meza found that farming satisfied everything he wanted to address with art, but in a more real way.

“I cherish my experience as an artist, because it gave me the lens to see the world and break it down,” he says. “I see farming as a long-term, extended art project. I found healing through food, and it just made sense.” 

There’s a fairly reliable routine at Emerald Gardens. Monday the partners do accounting.

On Tuesday, they combine sales calls and hosting various groups, like the National Young Farmers Coalition or the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. They also hope to gradually welcome customers — including their immediate neighbors — once word gets out that people can actually buy food here.

There’s also planting to be done. And cleaning. Plus production work, like watering, moving trays, developing food safety protocols as they prepare for GAP (good agricultural practices) certification. 

“We had the Colorado Department of Agriculture and give us an on-farm food safety readiness review, to make sure we were OK,” Meza says. “They said we hit all of the requirements, and were impressed with our bootstrapping of food safety. They told us, ‘Even though it’s not the nicest looking place, you have all your protocols addressed.’”

The Emerald Gardens microgreens hydroponic farm is pictured in Bennett on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Wednesday is harvest day, about a week to 10 days after planting. Plus there’s more cleaning as they get ready for seeding again on Friday. There are upwards of 600 trays to wash, but if they can nudge ahead of their schedule, they squeeze in more sales calls.

On Thursday, harvested products get packed into containers so that, on Friday morning, the distributor can pick them up and begin deliveries from Centennial to Fort Collins. On weekends, there are farmer’s markets to attend, construction and infrastructure work to complete at the farm and other odds and ends related to developing their business. 

And, of course, sales, sales, sales.

“We need to go big, to go volume. That’s how we build a viable business, at a price that is affordable,” Meza says. “Following economies of scale, that helps provide a more accessible price for our product. We want to make microgreens as common as lettuce.”

Things were easier, and less costly, when they were small. The expense of scaling up caught them a little by surprise. But like their solar panels or the propane water heater or the portable toilet that Meza must stumble to if nature calls in the middle of the night, they figure out how to make it all work.

“When we did the math for how much we were going to get from a tray of microgreens, the margins looked great,” Meza says. “But we did not anticipate the increase in expenses once you move into the commercial arena. Microgreens have this allure of high value, quick turnaround, sought after by chefs. But when you get into the thick of it, it’s not easy. You have to be compelled and motivated by more than financial return.”

Right now, their farming operation takes up just a small fraction of the space in the grow house. And the grow house, even with the auxiliary buildings where they prepare their products for sale, takes up just a small chunk of their 35 acres.

So they’ve invited some friends — surprisingly, more old high-school buddies who also found their way to Colorado — to launch a hemp operation on the land. And they hope to encourage other ag-minded people who share their vision of more equitable food distribution to join them on the acreage. 

When they can, they dabble in new concepts, like freeze-dried microgreens, so they can minimize waste and expand their product line, provided testing shows that the plants retain their nutritional punch.

“We’re going to see exactly how much nutrients are left,” Demerling says. “Then, we might have a new product from the excess microgreens we grow.”

They’re off to a promising start. Yoda loves them.

Emerald Gardens microgreens co-owners Dave Demerling, 33, left, of Arvada, and Roberto Meza, 32, right, of Bennett, pose for a portrait in their hydroponic farm’s greenhouse in Bennett on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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