Ten Acre Organics
Farming in the Concrete Jungle
Article by Jack Frazee
Photography by Marie Franki-Hanan
Droughts in Texas seem endless. We are either in a drought or just catching our breath from the last one. In the summer the sun and heat can be unbearable. It takes a special blend of disregard for one’s body and air conditioning to survive a summer in this state. General Philip Henry Sheridan once famously said, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.” By August, I frequently share that sentiment. The effect that prolonged heat has on agriculture can be as ruinous to Texas’ resources as other, more immediate, natural disasters, but shockingly this has done nothing to deter a booming rise in population over the past several decades. The population has more than doubled since the beginning of the 1960s. Of the many things this state has to offer its residents, excess water is not one of them, and with a limited supply of water, so too the yields of Texas agriculture are limited. Fortunately, there are a number of companies developing rather brilliant methods for conserving precious water resources while efficiently producing large agricultural yields. Ten Acre Organics, based in Austin, is one such company that boasts a particularly impressive system for managing the challenges of Texas agriculture.
Ten Acre Organics is the product of rigorous research and imaginative design. The name of the company comes from the ambitious goal of its creators to build the most sustainable and efficient ten acre farm possible, by using a plethora of cutting edge agricultural techniques. That farm has yet to be built as the company is currently proving the efficacy of its design on a smaller scale.
Ten Acre Organics is now operating a small, quarter acre farm on the east side of town that is a prototype of its larger design. Founders Michael Hanan and Lloyd Minick have developed their farm with the recognition that increased urbanization has largely severed humans from their food sources, and accordingly a principle of the company is to operate within view of those it serves. The food produced on this farm is something its customers can see for themselves. A visit to the farm is encouraged, and is a head rush. Not only is it exciting to see where the food comes from, but you can also see how Ten Acre Organics is pushing the edge of where food production is going. Central to its design is a system for growing plants called “aquaponics.”
Aquaponics is a blend of aquaculture – the farming of fish and marine life – and hydroponics – a technique for growing plants without soil. The blending of these techniques creates a system that mimics, on a small scale, natural conditions occurring in the environment. Inside the aquaponics greenhouse is a large tank of water filled with tilapia. A pump sends water from the tank in cycles to various hydroponic beds. The natural waste produced by the fish is converted by bacteria in the grow beds into a rich nutrient source for the plants. As the plants absorb these nutrients, they purify the water, which then flows back to the fish tank. This method of plant growth uses 90 to 95 percent less water than conventional agriculture. In a state whose own Water Development Board projects that current reservoirs will be insufficient by 2060, the use of such an innovative method of plant growth deserves a tip of the hat. In addition to efficiently producing crops, the aquaponics system has the added benefit of providing a clean environment for fish to grow and later be processed as another food source. The farm currently contains two of these systems, several rows of organically grown crops, a chicken coop, a worm-composting bin, a beehive, and a mushroom culture. What is remarkable about the various components of the farm is how they interrelate.
All of the organic waste produced on the farm is run through a process called “vermicomposting,” in which worms convert the waste into fertilizer. This fertilizer is worked into the soil that is used for organic crop growth so that the plants are not only grown organically, but are recycling the waste produced by the farm. This combination of methods allows for maximum efficiency in the production of each crop. Put simply, different plants need different conditions to grow well. For instance, some plants simply cannot thrive in the conditions provided by the aquaponics system due to their size or need for soil, whereas some herbs and plants grow at a faster rate with the use of aquaponics. The diversity of plants also minimizes the potential for mass crop failure due to disease or pests. Furthermore, bees from the beehive are able to pollenate the crops, increasing productivity while making honey.
It is the combination of many agricultural methods and techniques used by Ten Acre Organics that make its design so effective. Ten Acre Organics checks every box on the list of priorities for contemporary food production. The prototype developed by Ten Acre Organics stands as tangible proof of the ten acre concept. The company is currently seeking land on the outskirts of Austin and investment to fund its next steps. Those interested in seeing the prototype in action will find easy opportunities to do so as Ten Acre Organics frequently hosts educational workshops and crash courses breaking down the many techniques they practice. In a city that is passionate about local, organic food production, Ten Acre Organics is a welcome presence.
I had an opportunity to speak with Michael Hanan, chief marketing officer and chief operations officer, of Ten Acre Organics to get his perspective on the business and how it started.
The Austin Phoenix: What made you want to start your own business?
Lloyd and I attended Southwestern University together and as early as 2009 we were already dreaming big about starting a business to help save the world. There we were in liberal arts school, learning about the tremendous challenges we face as humans and as stewards of this planet and we both had the distinct realization that in our given context, socially conscious business has the greatest potential to make a positive impact. So, really, it all began with a motivation to help do as much good as possible and to help overcome the systemic problems of nutrition, food access, food security, environmental degradation, community building, and lifestyle optimization. Lloyd and I really resonated with each other in terms of our passion for facing these challenges and our belief in social entrepreneurship as the way forward.
TAP: What advice do you wish you had gotten before you started Ten Acre Organics?
It’s always good to have criticism – especially from thoughtful and astute people that ultimately have your best interest in mind. That’s what shakes things up, brings about new ways of considering problems, and ultimately helps create innovative solutions. So, to answer your question, I wish we had realized just how important good criticism is and how important it is to have advisers with relevant experience and critical thinking skills. That being said, I know that our teachers and parents have been teaching us things like this our whole lives, but it’s one of those things that’s become clearer and more resoundingly true as we’ve progressed.
TAP: What do you think has been the key to your success?
Our approach to agriculture as an ecosystem allows us to achieve excellent productivity and resource efficiency while minimizing negative environmental impacts. Ten Acre Organics is and will continue to be a success because there is a real and ever growing demand for this new type of truly sustainable agriculture. Additionally we grow and deliver top quality produce in terms of taste, smell, appearance, and, because we use organic methods and distribute hyper locally on the same day of harvest, our foods are of greater nutritional value.
TAP: What’s the hardest obstacle you’ve had to overcome as an entrepreneur?
The most challenging part of bootstrapping our business has been learning how to fill many different roles and do so consistently and effectively. This means learning new things every day and adapting to meet new challenges on the fly. In our case, Lloyd and I have had to educate ourselves about aquaponics and since there are no University programs in aquaponics, this meant effectively crafting our own curriculum for self-directed study. Beyond that we’ve had to learn about raising chickens, keeping bees, growing crops in soil, growing mushrooms, and composting to name a few. And that’s just on the operational side of things. On the organizational side we’ve had to play the part of visionary, organizational developer, lawyer, accountant, public relations, graphic designer, architect, and more. This is definitely the greatest challenge but it’s also the most rewarding part of being an entrepreneur: experiencing the freedom to pave your own way and the satisfaction of rising to the occasion.
TAP: What is your favorite way to handle stress or unwind?
That’s a really great question because when you’re working to start a company you’ve got to be fully there mentally and emotionally and you’ve also got to stay in top shape physically. It’s so easy to fall out of balance and get stressed out when you’re striving to create a business while working to sustain yourself as well.
When I need to decompress I really enjoy exercise and being outdoors. Cycling, swimming, hiking, fishing, and camping are my favorite ways to unwind. I also like to take time to relax – read, stretch, and just calm my mind. Good friends are lifesavers too – my friends always have that ability to help me move past whatever’s got me in a bind.
The prototype developed by Ten Acre Organics stands as tangible proof of the ten acre concept. The company is currently seeking land on the outskirts of Austin and investment to fund its next steps. Those interested in seeing the prototype in action will find easy opportunities to do so as Ten Acre Organics frequently hosts educational workshops and crash courses breaking down the many techniques they practice. In a city that is passionate about local, organic food production, Ten Acre Organics is a welcome presence.