CEO of The F.A.R.M,
Farmer & Educator
of Vertical Farming
Highlights: During our conversation over the phone, Alaric discusses his work with vertical farming in the Eastside of OKC. This method of farming will provide new job opportunities for the community and has the potential to produce large quantities of food in urban settings without the limitations of traditional farming practices.
JULY 25, 2020
Anna: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your relationship to the city?
Alaric: I came out here in October of last year. The reason I came out, I had reached out to Hank Binkowski, the owner of Uptown grocery store, so Uptown, and Buy for Less, and Save-A-Lot. So, the store that was located on 23rd and MLK. The goal for me, was to come into their stores and the new store they were going to set up on 23rd and Lincoln, and in there, I was going to put in a vertical farm, which would allow them to basically grow their own food for that particular community. So that's what brought me out here.
I had introduced the idea to them cause I understood some of the logistical challenges of grocery stores. Some of their challenges are having a continuous supply of a particular product at a particular price point. In order to do that right now, they have to use a lot of different vendors in order to supply them, so it's not exactly cost effective, so there's a very low profit margin for them. What I was doing was going in and kinda attacking the back end of how to address some of these issues as far as sourcing their produce, providing local produce, and cutting down their cost on the back end. Which would allow them to play on their price point in the front end, therefore offering that community a higher quality product at a more affordable price simply based on volume.
Anna: Did location have anything to do with it?
Alaric: Quality and location have a big issue in regard to where people can afford certain types of produce. Food security is more so about having access to healthy, affordable produce. Whole Foods sells organic but organic isn't affordable in this particular community, even though, if they had more organic there, they might have a reduction in some of the other health issues that they have in that community related to how they eat.
Anna: Can you tell me about your career history?
Alaric: I'm from California and my background is in IT. I specialize in data center optimization, pretty much as a solution specialist, specialist for companies as an introduction of data center optimization back when disaster recovery and cloud technology was comin' into play. My job was going into companies and introducing them to this new solution for current problems that they have when it comes to addressin' their data space. When I moved to Dallas in 2015, I applied that same methodology but using vertical farming technology because it was primarily about being able to grow foods with less resources in a smaller amount of space. For me, that was the solution to this particular problem we have about food access. You can transport the food but that's a whole 'nother issue. But if you have the ability to figure out how to grow the food more continuously in a smaller area where it's needed, than that would work as a solution to that particular problem.
Anna: Did you already have a separate interest in gardening or farming or did that come out of where your job led you?
Alaric: In California, gardening and food are a natural part of the landscape. So, you grow up with gardens, even in urban areas. When you walk down the street, there's orange trees and everybody has an orange or plum tree, or some type of fruit tree or something growing at their house. It's natural out there. Coming to Dallas, and being in Oklahoma, even when I was up there in Las Vegas, that's not really the case. So, having food that is readably accessible was very different in these environments.
Anna: Are there food deserts in California?
Alaric: There are, but there's quicker responses to food deserts in California. Oakland had an area considered to be a food desert. How they responded was taking over a lot and starting to grow food.
Anna: The last time we talked, you mentioned using unused real estate for similar purposes, can you tell me more about your goals with that?
Alaric: Out here in the Northeast side, there's a lot of open land and empty lots that are both owned by the city and individual organizations and companies, and by individuals. A lot of times, people in these areas sit on these lots because they're waiting on that gentrification to come through so they can get a higher price point on those lots. They'll just hold off.
Anna: Do you know much about the people that own these lots? Do they live in the community? Or outside of it?
Alaric: It's a combination of all those things. There's people who own pieces of property out here who don't live out here. There's a lot of people who have property who tell me, "My dad owned a lot over here," or "We got 20 acres over here." So, there's a lot of just empty land out here that's not being utilized. A lot of it, the inner part, is a lot of urban area, where, you know, homes or buildings once sat. Then you have other areas that are somewhat rural or a little bit outside of the city, but it's owned by the people who live in the city. It's land that's been farmed and used in their family for years but over the last 10, 15, 20 years, they haven't done anything with it. A lot of it falls into probate. Then you start talking about unused real estate. A lot of the unused buildings that sit vacant, you have companies that are going out of business like Sears and things like that that have these large buildings that they don't know what to do with. The same thing happens in these communities. You can walk up and down 23rd street and see a lot of empty buildings because there's no real business models that are designed to go into those communities, that they don't know the people who have the money to do that. They won't feel that they're business model is sustainable in that particular community.
Anna: What would it take to get that land to use?
Alaric: I think it's about having a plan for that land. For the individuals, I think if you can create a plan that says, "hey, we want to lease this lot from you for this amount of money. Right now, you're not getting anything from it. If you allow us to lease it, we'll at least pay you extra amount of dollars a month for leasing your land."
Anna: Is that what you're in the process of doing or is it a future goal?
Alaric: That's kinda what I'm in the process of doing now. I'm working with a couple of people between Oklahoma City and Spencer and assessing what lots are owned by the city. What land is owned by the city. There's buildings and stuff that are owned by the city where people can build on these buildings for a dollar a month for 99 years.
Anna: Do you think the city will be receptive to it?
Alaric: Part of this is developing business models—gentrification is not a bad word. It's a bad word when it's used against people. So, when people feel victimized by gentrification, then it's a bad word. But gentrification in itself is just the upgrading of one area from one level to another. So if you develop a business model that's designed to enculturate the gentrification, to become part of it as it comes through, meaning your business model is something that feeds off of the gentrification that's coming. The economics that's coming from this particular type of gentrification. The type of people that's movin' into the community, if you develop a business model, no matter what color you are, that supplies a demand for those people that's comin' in, you cool. Our problem is in this particular community, we don't necessarily have a knowledge base on a collective level to develop those types of businesses. And if we do, it's more about taking those businesses to areas where we feel it will already thrive based on that business model. It's really the way you think about it. I might think about it a little differently because I'm not from out here, so I have a different view on the landscape. So, when I look at everything, I see things a little differently than people kinda livin' inside the box. You have to kinda get outside of the box and get a more holistic viewpoint of what it is and see how everything is kinda laid out and figure out what kind of business needs to fit where.
Anna: Are there any specific businesses in mind that you think would fit into a working business model for the community?
Alaric: The key one for me is food. It's food production. So for example—this is what I truly believe—If you was able to find a location out here, and develop a produce store that grew all of its own produce and herbs right there on site, and it was like a greenhouse connected to the building, the same way you see a Walmart that has its garden area or a Lowes that has its garden area. But actually growing food. You kinda look at that, and you start to look at Northwest Oklahoma City, and look at the stuff they have out there. That model feeds into something for Whole Foods. That's why you always see Whole Foods in certain areas. Or Sprouts. Or certain types of restaurants. Developing a model like that, that offer those type of amenities that people are now looking for and gearing towards. If those people in this community did that, they would have ownership. Meaning, by doing that, now you're training them in a certain skillset that other people don't necessarily have. Which would mean vertical farming or hydroponic farm. Or other innovative ways of growing food and healthy food. Especially in this particular time period. When everybody is really concerned about having, you know, their distance, where food is coming from, how healthy the food is. There's an opportunity for this particular community to capitalize on that and not get ran over by gentrification, but become part of the gentrification as it comes in.
Anna: How do you think gentrification can occur positively without changing the culture of the community?
Alaric: Part of it is economics. When people feel like they can generate enough economics, enough income for themselves within their community to be able to thrive, and not just survive—that's one of the key points. That means that, when people over here get to a certain level where they can have certain types of jobs, they go outside of their community in order to do that, to find those jobs. So, if those jobs, they have to go outside and look for, those are the types of jobs that need to be created within the community. That's what will give them some ownership. Other places, either their community matches where they work at, or vice versa.
Anna: Do you know what is stopping this community from having those type of jobs?
Alaric: It's hard to say because that's a question that I've asked a lot. I've talked to a lot of people who tell me a grand history from 2nd all the way up to 50th. Of different Black businesses and Black shops and different things that were there. Honestly, I've had a hard time trying to figure out exactly what happened. I don't know if it's one thing or a combination of things. It just seems that, from the people I've talked to, as they've watched their family be in one area, and they'll slowly migrate. You had a period out here, like for example, in California, you just did not have this period. You had a period of segregation that was very recent to people out here. So, school busing and stuff like that, where people were moving away and out of this particular community. Their kids were being forced to bus to schools in other areas. That had something to do with it.
Anna: Some of the other contributing factors were white flight, desegregation, more dependency on cars, and the highway placed through the community.
Alaric: The same thing was done down there in Dallas, where they split South Dallas and North Dallas with a freeway. You can look at a map, somebody showed me a map down there on the emissions effect. They know just by the way the wind blows, they know that by cutting the freeway this way, then the emissions are going to blow in this particular area. So, there's a whole higher concentration of emissions in this area that people are breathing. I believe that they understand what they're doing and the fact that you have so many that are affected by it that don't understand the effects. And by the time they understand the effects, it's almost too late. They feel they can't do anything about it. And then, there's also this habit in the Black community of voting from within. I think that the government and the system kinda capitalize off of that because they know just based on race that people are going to vote a certain way in these communities. And that's really unfortunate and it's been the detriment to a lot of Black urban communities. They get the same politicians in there that look like them but don't do anything for them. They take advantage of them. And the people from the outside know that's the case. They know that no matter what, they're going to vote for that person because of their skin color, gonna get voted into office. So now it's about "how much control can I have over that person?" What ends up happenin', those people in office, they tend to be puppets for people outside of the community. So that's why you don't see anything bein' done. I just ain't been too many places, you know, where I've seen really anything done. If those communities are still in that state, it's because that politician that's over that community hasn't done anything over them years they've been in office to change that.
Anna: It's like finding this balance, how much responsibility does the community take for restoring itself and where do you put blame on the higher power who does have a lot of power in what they could do to improve. Some other people I've talked to have expressed that leadership will always act very concerned about the issues you bring up, but, ultimately, do nothing about it, or even try.
Alaric: Especially in low level politics, man, you ain't gonna hear from nobody until it's election time.
Anna: Has anyone else expressed a similar view that you've talked to?
Alaric: Everybody over here. Most of the people over here recognize and understand it, but again, because they're in the problem, they're almost part of the problem. Here, it's very deep seeded than a lot of other places. You know, a lot of other places, they figured out a way to kinda progress at some point out of that. Here, the fact that there's so much denial about it makes it very difficult to change it.
Anna: Are there any noticeable differences between how you've seen change occur in California versus here? Or Dallas?
Alaric: In Dallas, they got the people who we're causing the problem over the years out of the office. And so, now some of that money is being redirected, and there's more money being redirected to those particular areas. You'll have somebody in there that has a different viewpoint because now they need to operate here. So that means that, as crazy as it might sound, unless you get somebody that's not from there, or you get somebody that's more progressive, you'll need somebody of a different background to go in there and fix something like that. And that's something the community has to decide to do. They have to vote to put somebody in office based on their merits and not their skin color.
Anna: Do you think effective change can happen within the system? Or do you think change has to also occur through methods that attempt to break out of the system, like protests?
Alaric: [Sigh]...We've been protesting for a long time, you know...Protesting gets you results that pacify you from protesting at that time. That's how I look at it. They respond to your demands but it's not a sustainable model for change. Policy and power. Kinda shifting where the power is within the community. If you have a community that's in power, it's about educating the community on how to obtain some type of power of their situation. There's been other cultures that have done that. The Hispanic community, the Asian community. There's been other communities that ran into some of the same issues, but they responded differently...I don't know. That's a hard one.
Anna: What has stood out to you as unique about the community here?
Alaric: I like it out here because the people are interested in what they don't know. That means that they're open to change, they're open to opportunity. It's just about feedin' them the right information. There are other tools and mechanisms that can be used out here. For me, I have a particular lane, and I see a lot of opportunity in that particular lane that nobody has stepped in. But I'm also seeing that, if you can show it, it's something they will feed into. You can use it as a developmental tool for a community, and I think this particular community is hungry for something different. Everybody that's coming in and doing something is either not from here or they're not offering a solution.
Anna: What kind of solutions are the community looking for?
Alaric: They don't really know, and that's part of the problem. They know they want stuff. They want to have the same equal playing grounds as other communities. They just don't necessarily know how to obtain it. So, for example, they want a Black-owned grocery store, you know. That's a cool idea but is it something that's real tangible? And I say that even as a Black person because you have to look at it, you have to be kinda realistic, like, you know, what examples are there of Blacks owning a grocery store chain in recent history? So, you want something that you don't know how to do which is why it hasn't been done. So again, the biggest thing that I think can really be afforded out here, and given out here, is those type of opportunities. Those type of skillsets that can be scaled. And so, they're looking for something that says, hey, here we are, you know. This is what we're doin' that no one else is doin'. That's what I really wanted to be able to do with the grocery store because that would put a different focus on the Northeast side, as opposed to being kinda a place where people need help from. They always need handouts. All the news coverage and stuff like that is like, "Oh somebody else needs help out here, and they don't have a grocery store, and this and this and this." It might be positive but it's a positive response to negative stuff.
Anna: What is your relationship to the Sustainable Science Academy?
Alaric: So, what I do is that I develop partnerships out here. I developed partnerships with different groups and different organizations. So, I have different relationships with these groups inside that they don't necessarily have with each other and they've been here. I kinda like been working my way through the community like a piece of thread that kinda pulls different pieces together. The first one was working with NEOKC Farmers Market. They didn't have a place to grow their food anymore and I knew a guy out there in Spencer, he sits on 14 acres and he's trying to lease that land and he has a training program, doing stuff with youth, and I had already developed a partnership with them to do some urban farming over there. Vertical farms and vertical towers out of shipping containers. So, putting them together. And then working with Pitts park over here with the city to basically operate the farmers market out of there. So now that’s 1, 2, 3, 4 different places that's growing food and have a hub in order to sell that food right here inside the community.
Greg Brown is a guy that I met when I first came out here at a small Farmers Association conference held by a Black historical research project. That's where I met him at. He's a native from Oklahoma, he's from out here. His family has land in Boley. He loves doing farming. When we met, he was interested in the vertical farming. He didn't know anything about that. So, when he started to learn about the vertical farming, then what that did was introduce him to a different concept to what he was traditionally taught. So, he's kinda been like my guide out here as far as knowin' where's what and who's what and you know, a lot of the history that goes on out here. So that's my business partner. Working with somebody within the community, he's an example of what can happen to others in the community when they get a different piece of information. The possibilities of what he can do now with his land, he has towers now in his front yard.
Anna: Can you tell me more about vertical farming?
Alaric: Vertical farming is basically growing produce without dirt and a smaller amount of space. There's a few different methods, anywhere from aquaponics to hydroponics to traditional aeroponics. I got into a new farm, which is a hybrid of vertical aeroponics in a modular system that's designed to be scalable. So, it's designed to specifically grow produce at a healthier and a smaller amount of space, and faster amount of time, with less resources.
Anna: Is the goal for individuals to do this in their yards or for a business to adopt it?
Alaric: It's scalable. That's the key with it. I can do something, from one person having a tower at their house—It costs $100—to setting up you know, 300, 2,200 towers on one acre and growing a million pounds a year. It's a very scalable system. So, you can do it in a greenhouse, you can do it indoors, you can do it outdoors. You can do it on a rooftop. But here in an urban area, and you have about 90% of the population now moving into urban areas by the year 2050, you know. Food, and where food comes from, has to travel a lot further. So, it's always a continuous issue with logistics. When it comes to issues like we're having right now where you have a pandemic. If things get shut down, you know, depending on how things go. Food, again, becomes a key factor in where it comes from and how long it takes to get to where it needs to be where people are. So being able to intercept that with vertical farming and other innovative ways of farming that allow you to grow food continuously in different environments and allows you to control the environment in which you grow the food. So now, instead of waiting for strawberries to come from California, you can create an environment and grow strawberries right here in Northeast Oklahoma.
Anna: Do you believe this could create a lot of jobs or a lot of resources for people in the community?
Alaric: Both. It would create a lot of jobs. If you look at taking a lot, you know, just an acre. The amount of food that you could grow on that lot. The size of the facility, the amount of towers, and the amount of manpower it would take to harvest, feed, package, deliver...on an acre, you could create, you know what I'm sayin, 100 jobs.
Anna: That all sounds really amazing. How long have you been working on the farms/gardens on your property and on the property of the Science Academy?
Alaric: A couple of months. I've only been out here about nine months. I'm here on a permanent basis. I'm here because I think that this can be a place where these models can be developed. People can be employed and trained and deployed to other cities that have similar problems.
Anna: Is this the birthplace of this model or is this happening anywhere else?
Alaric: Yes. Not like this. Vertical farming is a 28-billion-dollar industry by the year 2023. Right. You can't go to school for vertical farming right now. That makes it almost like a vocational trade. I'm on the small scale. What they're looking at is converting buildings, you know, 4 or 5 story buildings. 10 story buildings into vertical farms. In controlled environments. Being able to grow food on every one of those different levels. The concept itself was developed at Disney's Epcot center, between the Epcot center and NASA. It's called The Land, which is the oldest running hydroponic farm in the world; they've been running it out there for about 45 years. They grow tomatoes the size of your head down there. NASA developed a system to grow food in space. It's just about gettin' these systems out there, gettin' people to really understand it. Developing a training place for people to start to learn that and if you concentrate that in this particular community, I do believe that you create a whole new workforce that you can now deploy to other parts of the state to do training, to do instillations, to set up these systems. Out here in Northeast Oklahoma City for example, prime example, Dollar General, Dollar Store, Family Dollar, what they call small box grocery stores. A lot of urban communities are developing ordinances against those stores coming into those communities if they don't have at least 500 square feet of fresh produce available. That occurred here, the city council passed it. So now, again, looking at the business model, those stores, when you start to look at you know, Dollar General, these are national stores. Where they dominate at is in urban communities. So, for them to have to change up their business model to accommodate that, that's a lot money. That's a lot of changes. That's like telling 7-11, or telling McDonalds, you can no longer be 3,000 square feet, you can only be 1,500 square feet. That's a lot of money for a company to change their top-down organization structure. So, what they'll look for, even though they probably haven't looked for it yet, because it's not really being offered yet, is outsourcing. Finding a way to outsource what they have to do in order to operate someplace to a business that specializes in doin that. That's what we've done with IT.
Anna: So, it's more important for the community to have control over the businesses coming in rather than for the businesses to have control in the community?
Alaric: Oh yes, absolutely.
Anna: Do you think that plays a big part, the businesses having a lot of control in how gentrification occurs in a community?
Alaric: Yah, they're the ones that have control of those tax dollars. So, those businesses, because they generate tax dollars for that particular property, they have a lot more say-so in what happens over there. They're going to make whatever upgrades or changes to accommodate the gentrification that's comin' into their area. They're not planning on moving. They just know they have to upgrade their location to fit into the urban plan for what's comin' out there. That way they're not in the way, they become part of it. Right now, they want to buy up people because you're just in the way. There was a study done by this dude running for office. In the study, it shows that about 89% of the people who work in the Adventure district, which is considered to be the Northeast side, don't live there. That's an example of a business model, both in the government and in private, that operate within the community but doesn't feed back into a community. So even the fact that they don't give the people in this community first dibs at those jobs. Of course, you want them to be qualified, but trying to pull from the community. There are no job fairs or nothing. You go other places and communities; those businesses hold job fairs in those communities. There's been one job fair out in this community since I've been here that I've seen. That was by the grocery store that didn't come.
Anna: Why do you think they don't want to pull from the community?
Alaric: Because their patrons aren't people from that community, so they want people workin' in there that match the demographic of the patrons that come in there that's gonna patronize those businesses. I think it's a combination of the bias, they're saying “hey, most of the people coming to this zoo, to this science place are either schools, universities, not a lot of Black folks.” So, it doesn't make sense to have a lot of Black folks workin' there. So, they pull from other areas. They want a certain look. You want a certain look in the cowboy museum, you know what I'm sayin', if a majority of the people coming in there are, you know, cowboys.
Understanding grocery stores is one aspect of it. Homeland has been sitting over there for years, across the street from that location where they're talkin' about puttin' somethin'. They've been there. It's just, when you start to look at planning, gentrification hadn't reached that part of the Eastside yet. It's just now in recent years that it's now starting to creep a little further down so now you can anticipate within 3-5 years you're going to have a whole different population over here. That was one of the battles between Homeland and Uptown. They're rivals. So even a lot of the behind the scenes business dealings and stuff that goes on has to do with that. Restore OKC is in partnership with Homeland, for example. So, you start to look at Homeland in partnership with the city and with another group, it's like a triangle group, there's a three-part group relationship between Homeland, this investment group, and the city of Oklahoma. So, the city of Oklahoma is making a certain amount of money off of that particular land because they're basically leasing the parking lot to Homeland so that's their benefit. They're getting parking lot revenue over there. That's also part of the TIF district, that TIF district was actually designed, and it's also part of the opportunity zone. So, it's an opportunity zone right now based off its current state. That's what makes that land and everything over there so attractive right now. There's a lot of tax incentives. And the Binkowskis are the ones who actually kinda put together this whole tax incentive based on that grocery store that they told the city they we're going to be puttin' in there. They know for one that Homeland is not the most cost-effective grocery store based off their price point. And then its location doesn't really serve that community. The USDA has a tracker system that you can go on where it will show you how many people in a particular area have cars and have access to grocery stores and food and stuff like that. Homeland is right on the edge of the Northeast side, where they're gonna be puttin' it. So, the people who still live in the heart of the Northeast side, which is over here, you know, 17th, 10th, and all of that area. How do they get to Homeland? You still have an access issue. It's not affordable and it’s over a mile away.
Anna: What do you see happening to the community in the future?
Alaric: I'm trying to time it to where it's a nice little collision course. Where both ideas and models run into each other and they're forced to have a conversation. Now, somebody else is doing something else over here that you want to be over here. That you want to be a part of whatever you have going in here. I think being able to do that will help create a new kind of conversation. So, as opposed to Homeland, yah Homeland's coming. They're not going to come this year like they said. That's not going to happen. They haven't even broken ground. In the meantime, like just for me, I see the opportunity to do something a lit bit faster. I see an opportunity to do these micro farms and actually do our own grocery store. Develop and put together a grocery store model that fits what's needed in this particular community now and for the community that wants to move in here. The community has to have something to say something about. They have to have something that gives them power, they have to have something that other people want. I'm trying to develop something for this community that other people want. Responding to what's going on instead of reacting to what's going on.
Anna: What are the differences between reacting and responding?
Alaric: Reacting is not really thinking it out. It's like, man something's been done to me so it's a kneejerk reaction to being a victim. It's about being in this victim role. Reaction keeps you in that victim role out here. When you respond, you lookin' at the whole picture. This is what's going on, and you have to be honest about what's going on and where you stand in that. You have to upgrade what it is you do out here in order to address your own issues. You can't fight the same battle with the same tools if everybody else is using different tools and you're still using sticks and stones. There's an economy out here but other people are capitalizing off of it. The businesses out here, they work, they've been here for years. They're sustainable because they're the only thing here.
Anna: Do people in the community push back against having a victim role put on them?
Alaric: Yes. For example, the people in the community never started calling those communities food deserts. That's not a term they came up with. So, different terms are given and named different things that, for them it might have a demeaning effect. It also puts them in the middle state where others’ responses to that, the governor’s response, the state’s response to this being a food desert now is to increase the amount of people having access to food stamps, for example. That's their response. By doing that they increasing the amount of dependency that those people have on that system now. So, it's not teaching any type of independence, it's just teaching a recurring of dependency. Instead of helping pass down a generation of wealth or anything, they pass down this whole generation of welfare to a point where the standards of what they expect for themselves are so low that it's hard to change their situation.
…We've been protesting—Blacks and Whites—have been protesting. Where are the results? When have those protests turned into a solution? That should be the narrative—developing a solution and understanding how to even get to a solution. Being able to really identify, here is the problem, and how do you address these particular problems? And, actually come up with a comprehensive solution. That's where your funding should be poured into if you really want a solution.
Anna: Thank you for with speaking me and answering my questions, have a great day!