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Going Greens: Edmond's Upward Harvest lives the gospel of local, sustainable growing practices

Edmond’s Upward Harvest has developed a proprietary aquaponics system that could revolutionize how we harvest our food.
by Dave Cathey Published: August 19, 2014

photo - 
Amaranth and arugula grow Friday at Upward Harvest, an aquaponic farm in the Edmond area. Photo By Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman
  Steve Gooch - 
The Oklahoman
Amaranth and arugula grow Friday at Upward Harvest, an aquaponic farm in the Edmond area. Photo By Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman Steve Gooch - The Oklahoman

If any herbs or greens are having more fun every day than those growing at Upward Harvest, they’re probably doing something illicit.

The microgreens and basil plants under the watchful eye of company President Travis Flatt spend their days basking in gentle sunshine, muted by translucent plastic, and soaking their roots in nutrient-rich water circulating through a flume system that twice daily takes them on a ride.

This log ride for living plants is part of an aquaponic growing system Flatt and his brother-in-law built with their own hands, which they think might point the world in an embarrassingly simple and sustainable new direction for locally sourced foods.

“You could build a system like this in every state,” Flatt said.

This means food travels a shorter distance to find its way onto your table and with less Frankenstein-esque human assistance — resulting in fresher, tastier herbs and greens.

Just the beginning

Upward Harvest and its Dr. Seuss-ian flume system were born to parade sod, rather than grocery store fare.

At an early age, Flatt had the good fortune to discover the revenue potential in the adage about sitting around watching the grass grow. At 14, the Stroud native went to work for Canadian Valley Sod in Midwest City, where he learned about the potential of sod-growing as a vocation.

Flatt eventually developed his own style of rootless sod that could be grown in one place then laid around a yard, golf course or ball field like carpet.

Seeking investors for his sod business, he learned the price of sod pales in comparison with the price of basil, and he immediately went about rewriting his business plan and retrofitting his contraption.

Now, Flatt is able to grow the equivalent of 8 acres of farm land within the confines of a modest-sized hoop house. Flatt and his partners think the system could revolutionize the way we feed ourselves as a nation.

“We would like to see one-acre greenhouses in the middle of every city supplying lettuce, instead of getting it from somewhere like California,” he said.

The proprietary system Flatt developed uses 10 percent of the water and 5 percent of the land required to grow produce in places like the Salinas Valley in California. Because of the wholly organic infrastructure, the yield is denser in the nutrients we need than we’re used to finding in markets.

Flatt is searching for a larger property to expand his operation, which he hopes to diversify with contraptions capable of growing melons, tomatoes and more. And he hasn’t given up on his soil-free sod idea, either.

If you build it ...

Once Flatt got the notion to switch from sod to basil, he retooled his flumes to accommodate what are, for all intents and purposes, Styrofoam inner tubes for basil plants.

Each inner tube can hold about two dozen plants as they float up, down and all around the four-story flume structure. On the top level, plants soak in as much sun as they can stand before Flatt throws a switch and gravity beckons the plants down the lazy river, speeding down small chutes as they change levels and wind their way to the bottom, where they end up at a conveyor belt that carries them back to the top. The plants take a ride early in the morning and at midafternoon.

“That’s when the plants will just start to show a little curl from the sun,” Flatt said.

The smorgasbord is fed by wastes of some 5,000 goldfish that live in a 10,000-gallon water tank adjacent the flume structure. The fish feed on food provided by Flatt and whatever insects flit too close to the surface.

Goldfish, Flatt said, offer the perfect amount of nutrients for plants.

“Indians used to bury fish around the corn so the roots could reach them,” Flatt said.

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by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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