Jan./Feb. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Jennifer Harrison
Photos by Richard Green
High-tech farm thrives in urban warehouse.
Koichi "Ko" Nishimura, left, and Sam Araki spent decades in the technology and electronics business before starting Ecopia Farms in the Silicon Valley, where they grow gourmet greens and herbs indoors under energy-efficient LED lights.
Cilantro once made Alex Ong cry—or at least it brought tears to his eyes. For the executive chef and owner of Betelnut, a San Francisco restaurant specializing in Asian cuisine, the herb tasted like something the well-traveled chef would find in Vietnam, bursting with flavor.
"This is so in your face, this is cilantro, you want cilantro, 'Here I am,' it is saying," he explained with a laugh.
Ecopia's resident chef, Stephen Beaumier, samples some herbs before harvest.
For Ong, the cilantro was a taste test because of its unlikely origin—a warehouse near the heart of Silicon Valley. The place: Ecopia Farms in Campbell. The idea: urban farming.
Under LED lights that cast a neon glow, Ecopia Farms grows more than 60 varieties of baby lettuces and greens, petite and micro herbs and edible flowers—in an innovative way that conserves water and energy resources.
"They definitely think outside the box," said a once-skeptical Ong.
"They" is a group of unlikely farmers.
Koichi "Ko" Nishimura spent a career in electronics, first with IBM and then as CEO of an electronics manufacturing service company. Partner Sam Araki comes from Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space, where he played a role in developing the nation's first operational photo reconnaissance satellite; he was president of the company when he retired.
Richard Ross, left, and Shannon Fink plant greens into trays using a grow mat that helps maintain proper spacing and humidity.
"As years went by, I studied a lot of territory over the entire world and it became obvious that we are beginning to run out of water," Araki said.
Because of their firsthand experience with regions that are too arid or lack the infrastructure to maintain farms and farmland, both Araki and Nishimura became passionate about finding ways to grow food in locations where farming may seem impossible.
"To grow produce in very adverse conditions throughout the world, you'd have to grow it indoors, grow it in soil that you bring in, use very little water," Araki said. "That is how we got started."
Matt Cisowki moves a tray of greens from the seedling room to the main growing area.
Getting started actually occurred when Araki and Nishimura retired from their respective careers and assembled a team—including engineers with whom they had worked previously—to test the indoor farming concept, beginning in 2008.
"We did it in a couple garages. We beat HP. We did it in two garages," Nishimura joked, referring to the fact that Hewlett-Packard started in a single Bay Area garage.
"What we did was create a spa for the plant and, as engineers, we know a lot about optimization," he said. Optimization, in this case, meant designing a growing system to be as effective as possible.
A tomato and plum salad is accented with opal basil, amaranth, mint, sorrel, celery leaves, chives and borage (starflower).
Today, step inside Ecopia's warehouse and you'll see the system at work. The partners say they can grow in 3,000 square feet what it would take a traditional 30-acre farm to grow, with 3 percent of the water.
The greens are grown from seed—initially in seedling trays filled with custom organic soils—for three to four weeks in a seedling room, then are transplanted into larger containers to grow for an additional three to four weeks, depending on the desired size.
"The soil makes the biggest difference," Araki said. "It breaks down the microorganisms, breaking down the minerals, works those minerals into the food element that the plants can absorb. That is what makes our taste very unique."
Chef Gerardo Naranjo of Alexander Steak House in Cupertino uses tongs the size of tweezers for the precise placement of herbs and flowers.
The trays are stacked in shelving and bathed in cycles of purple-pinkish LED light. Add a small amount of water, and the result: brightly colored produce and intense flavors. For example, a bite of something like lemon basil reveals several layers of flavors.
While Ecopia now grows dozens of organic products, it was a select few that captured the attention of well-known Bay Area chefs.
As for Ong, it was a baby red romaine lettuce and a baby lola rosa lettuce that Ecopia staff asked him to try. And these baby greens are tiny—a head of lettuce can fit into the palm of your hand, with leaves measuring 2 to 4 inches.
"Essentially, I was the first or second chef to touch it, taste it, make a salad with it," Ong recalled. He was introduced to Ecopia's products by friend and former Bay Area broadcaster Jan Yanehiro, a founding member of Ecopia and also one of the people who helped coin the company name, combining the words "ecology" and "copious."
Ong was hesitant at first because he had an established network of produce suppliers and wasn't so sure about this modern farming method. Then he took a bite.
"I tried the micro-wasabi greens and can't begin to describe them," he said. "The taste has a hint of wasabi, a smell of radish and my mind is going haywire, 'Put them on this and this'."
The pairing possibilities—how the greens and herbs complement different foods—was Ecopia's foot in many a restaurant door. At Michael Mina, another well-regarded San Francisco restaurant, Executive Sous Chef Jason Halverson was wooed by the vast array of options and intense taste. It was a petite ruby streak mustard herb that sparked his imagination.
"It's small, spicy and packs a punch," he said. "We were working on a black cod glazed in Saikyo miso (a sweeter version of the fermented soy paste) and the greens gave us the idea to go with spicy flavors."
Alex Ong of Betelnut restaurant in San Francisco was one of the first chefs to try Ecopia's gourmet greens.
Chef Michael Mina himself was so enamored with the greens that he had Ecopia install its trays directly into his kitchen.
"This allows us to keep the greens fresh and alive until they're served to the guest," Halverson explained.
A few streets over at Wayfare Tavern, owned by Food Network's Tyler Florence, Executive Chef John Gurnee calls Ecopia's arugula "pretty wild" and insists it is the company's harvesting process that makes a difference.
"They are harvested at the optimal moment," he said. "Most microgreens are just sprouts and don't have much flavor. These are allowed to grow and the flavor develops."
Down the peninsula at Alexander Steak House in Cupertino, Chef de Cuisine Gerardo Naranjo is using tongs the size of tweezers. He gently adorns his dishes with dandelion herbs or bronze fennel, depending on what flavors the dish calls for.
Richard Ross, far left, discusses Ecopia's planting process with founders Sam Araki and Ko Nishimura.
"These herbs are pure," he said. "They add flavor and color to the plate."
The restaurant receives a delivery from Ecopia every day. Customers can also purchase Ecopia products online (www.ecopiadirect.com) and at various food events and farmers markets in the Bay Area.
Back at the warehouse, Ecopia, which began selling produce in the summer of 2011, is working to keep up with demand.
Ron Kanemoto leaves the warehouse to deliver freshly harvested greens to restaurants and other customers.
"For two old men, it has to be a passion," Nishimura laughed. Their goal is to first add capacity in San Francisco to meet local demand, then expand to major markets across the U.S. The company has also received numerous inquiries about expanding into other countries.
While agriculture is in both Araki's and Nishimura's histories—their fathers and other family members farmed—they find it curious that two friends who met years ago in the world of electronics are now making something else—something edible that could influence future farming techniques.
As Nishimura puts it, "It looks like my ancestors are calling me back to farm, to make sure I farm before I die."
Ecopia Farms is so committed to the chef-farmer relationship that it employs an on-site chef to help determine what to grow for the culinary world. Stephen Beaumier and other San Francisco-area chefs offer these tips for using and storing herbs.
- Get flowery: Look for the flowers on herbs and use them. These are sometimes the most flavorful part of the plant. As for other parts, avoid using the woody stem when cooking with fresh herbs; stems and stalks can be bitter.
- Cut carefully: Use scissors when harvesting from the soil or cutting herbs. This is gentler on the plant, as compared to uprooting it or tearing off the stem.
- Storage sense: Herbs like their space—avoid packing them tightly during storage. Use a clamshell or plastic storage container lined with a dry paper towel and spread the herbs out, giving them room to breathe. Plastic bags work, too. Dampen a paper towel and squeeze out excess water. Then loosely roll the herbs up in the towel and store in the bag for up to a week.
- Timing is everything: Heat can diminish the flavor of fresh herbs, so they should be added at the end of the cooking process, such as accenting pasta with fresh basil. Dried herbs, on the other hand, should be used in the beginning, such as stirring dried oregano into a tomato sauce.