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Building site meant for senior units now growing 'microgreens'SANTA ROSA -- In 2007, Syamak Taromi, a housing developer in the Bay Area for more than 30 years, purchased a 10-acre lot in northwest Santa Rosa with plans to build a 230-unit senior facility.

Prior to the purchase, the site was a nursery that grew and sold root stock.

Then, with the crash of the housing market, Mr. Taromi found himself with a piece of land and a lot of greenhouses and no real hope of development. So he had to get creative.

As he cleaned up the site, he realized he could at least rent out some of the greenhouses to businesses in need of space.

A number of tenants came in, including Temple Craft, a company that builds prefabricated spa treatment spaces; Bountea, maker of soil amendments; and a wheatgrass grower.

Then Mr. Taromi’s son Sanjar Taromi, 21, and Sanjar’s cousin Ali Ghasemi, 22, took an idea they had been toying with for more than six years—to create a sustainable urban agriculture company—and put it to the test.

The result is Vertical Harvest.

[caption id="attachment_16984" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Greenhouses at Vertical Harvest (click to enlarge)"][/caption]

Vertical Harvest employs the concepts of vertical farming, which is an agricultural technique where food is grown hydroponically and aeroponically in “farmscrapers.”

The company is in its beginning stages, and the site in Santa Rosa is the pilot program.

Sanjar and Ali had to retrofit the space to be a food-approved facility.

Ron Mitchell of Mitchell C.E.A. in Sonoma County helped with that certification as well as with the lighting.

Steve Froehlich of Hydrosun Hydroponics Inc. in St. Paul, Minn., helped with the system design and construction.

[caption id="attachment_16989" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Newly sprouted broccoli (click to enlarge)"][/caption]

They have test hydroponics set up and racks of microgreens, such as lettuces and herbs, they sell at local farm markets, and they have marketed to local restaurants.

The Farmhouse Inn, Cyrus and Willi's Wine Bar are all in negotiations with Vertical Harvest.

Long-term plans for the company include building a site in San Francisco. They envision a future where people can live in the buildings their food is grown in.

As for the development of housing on the site, they are calling that quits.

“We put together a master plan for the site,” said Syamak Taromi. “We can grow $7 million a year in organic produce and fish farming.”

There is more than 300,000 square feet of greenhouse space on the site.

[caption id="attachment_16981" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Beds of spouted plants at Vertical Harvest (click to enlarge)"][/caption]

Vertical Harvest’s mission is to spread hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic sustainable food production throughout the world. According to NASA research, 80 percent of the land that is viable for farming is already in use.

“The beauty of vertical farming is that it is a full-circle system,” said Sanjar Taromi. The water left from the hydroponics will go to fish farms, he said.

The microgreens are grown on burlap sacks.

“I found out through people at the farmer’s market that coffee comes in burlap and am talking to some coffee people about getting their old bags.”

Vertical Harvest uses goats to cut the grass.

Solar panels are the next step to run the LED lights.

“It is an energy intense system,” said Syamak Taromi.

The technology is being studied in universities around the country; U.C. Berkeley, Cornell, U.C. Davis and Columbia are just a few.

“With the water crisis we are in, being able to grow things hydroponically, which cuts down on water use, will be a valuable thing,” Sanjar Taromi said.

And, they said, the space to grow food year round in any climate could change the face of farming.

“Plants need four things to grow,” said Syamak. “Water, light, nutrition and a medium. Soil is only a medium.”