A Small Family Farm Inspires Health for an Entire Community and Beyond

A small family farm can positively impact the health of an entire family and an entire community in so many ways, I would like to introduce you to a family of vertical farmers and tell you how the vertical aeroponic Tower Garden® has transformed their lives. Husband-and-wife team Dr. Mitra Ray and Doug Barlow have spent the last two decades educating others on the power of whole food nutrition and living a healthy lifestyle. Getting fresh local veggies year-round in their home town of Seattle is extremely difficult especially during the winter and spring, and this family was determined to change that.

Tim Blank
Founder and CEO, Future Growing® LLC

Dr. Mitra RayDoug Barlow

Pictured above: Urban farmers Dr. Mitra Ray and Doug Barlow

Q: Doug, how did you first learn about vertical aeroponic farming?

Mitra Blog 1

Living Towers Farm – Eustis, Florida. (Click photo to enlarge)

When I first heard about the concept of vertical aeroponics and the Tower Garden®, I immediately thought: “How cool is that?” The opportunity to hear NSA founder and CEO Jay Martin share his perspective on how the Tower Garden® would fit into the future of our society was fascinating, and I didn’t need any convincing as to how this would fit into my family’s lifestyle. In addition, seeing Dr. Jan Young’s commercial farm, Living Towers, shed light on a totally new paradigm relating to the future of local food production. I quickly realized that aeroponic vertical farming has a minimal impact on the environment and maximum output in a small space, with a fraction of the effort of traditional farming methods. We were very excited by the opportunity to get three Tower Gardens® of our own and begin our journey of growing more food at home!

Q: Mitra, what inspired you to become a home-based vertical urban farmer?

In the early spring of 2011, a group of us took a trip with Jay Martin to the Living Towers Farm in Eustis, Florida. The first thing I noticed was the sign on the building, which said: “Beyond Organic”. Of course, I wanted to know what that meant, and I would soon find out. When you walk into your first aeroponic commercial farm, it appears a little sci-fi, futuristic, and cool. Dr. Jan’s Young’s farm was all that and more. What brought it all down to earth was the taste of the herbs. I am a foodie and I love to cook. I am way into the science of plant-based nutrition. After tasting the basil, I was intrigued. Next was cilantro, and I was sold. The herbs were bursting with flavor—a sign of nutrient-dense foliage.

Click photo to enlarge

I was extremely impressed by this technology, but I did wonder about the plastic. Why plastic? Why not ceramic or something more earthy for the container? Then, Tim Blank explained that the Tower was like a kitchen appliance and plastic allowed for precision parts. He too was concerned about the containers used in typical hydroponic growing—particularly Styrofoam, which is the most prevalent vertical material. The Tower Gardens® are made of food-grade, UV-protected plastic that will last many decades. During the exercise of assembling the Tower Gardens®, I realized that something earthy and fragile like ceramic would just not do the trick!

Next, we had lunch with all Tower Garden®-grown produce. All I can say is, yum! For dessert, I walked over to the strawberry Tower and decided right then and there that I would own at least one tower dedicated to strawberries only! How fun is that?! And I began to realize what “beyond organic” really tasted like. We ordered three Tower Gardens® after that amazing urban farm tour.

Doug, how did you incorporate your first Tower Gardens® into your home?

Click photo to enlarge

Spring weather in the Pacific Northwest can be challenging when it comes to gardening, so the opportunity to experiment with the Tower Garden® created a whole new passion for gardening in me. Before Tower Gardens®, our home had limited opportunities for food production. It’s on a steep hill facing south-southwest, which goes down to the waters of Port Susan, on the southern half of the Salish Sea Basin. We don’t receive direct sunlight until midday, and there are very few flat spaces that get enough sun to nourish a garden. The Tower Garden® provided a perfect solution to our particular gardening challenges.

We had recently terraced part of our hillside (to minimize the encroachment of the lush flora that is part of the coastal Washington state environment), and this provided a perfect space to create a unique Tower Garden® experience. Since our deck is a place that receives the earliest direct sunlight during the day, the Tower Garden® also provided a wonderful opportunity to grow food in a small space on our deck.

Click photo to enlarge


Q: Mitra, tell me more about this interesting piece of property.
Well, we live on a steep hill with very little land for growing food. It is beautiful, but there is not much gardening space. The only flat piece of land was at the bottom of a 120-step staircase. A few years prior, Doug had managed to drag enough gardening material down to the beach to create a nice waterfront garden. But maintenance required long hours. When the Tower Gardens® arrived, we had to make space for seedlings in the house, so we set the Towers right out on the patio. This was in April in the Pacific Northwest. Within a month, we were eating salads from the Tower Gardens®.
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Every morning, we make a green drink with dark leafy greens, seasonal fruits and seeds (flax, chia, and sunflower). In the past, we got our local, organic greens from our co-op. I never imagined that I would like our Tower Garden®-grown greens so much better! There is nothing like picking your greens the same day as eating them. Every gardener knows that. But these greens are especially good. I asked Tim about the term, “aeroponics” again. In fact, by this time I had spent several hours on the phone learning from Tim about aeroponics. During a business trip to Seattle in 2011, Tim had a chance to visit our home and give us some pointers. Through our sharing, we decided to do a webinar together on this information, which is available on http://drmitraray.com/urban-gardening.

Q: So, Mitra, how did you transition from three Tower Gardens® to a small family farm?

The more we learned, the more excited we got. What started out as three Tower Gardens® grew into a small family farm and, honestly, I have lost count of how many Tower Gardens® we have over the entire property! I love to sit outside on the balcony, eat lunch with our own produce, and listen to the running water from the Tower Gardens®. The first summer, we grew peppers, cauliflower, tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, all kinds of salad greens, and dark leafy greens. We all felt like we had taken our already healthy lifestyle to another level with fresh produce at our fingertips.

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With the onset of the cold fall weather, it did not take long for us to realize how much we missed having access to the high volume of Tower Garden® fresh produce on demand. Plus, the expense of buying lackluster organic greens from our local food coop was added back into the weekly shopping budget. In mid-December, I began sprouting kale, chard, collards, some lettuce, and herbs. I picked up a 5½ ft. x 5½ ft. plastic pop-up greenhouse from Lowe’s for about $85. I picked up several 4-foot T5 fluorescent fixtures, and celebrated the New Year by starting my winter Tower Garden® project on the shores of Port Susan. With the average high being in the low 40s, and the nightly low just above freezing, I dropped a 200-watt heater in each of the three reservoirs, and 30 days later we were harvesting greens! The portable greenhouse provided just enough protection to grow fresh produce during our winter months on the ocean, and I realized that, with minimal power consumption, we could continue to grow our own food 12 months of the year.

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The greenhouse also provided a place to start my springtime Tower Garden® farm much earlier than Mother Nature will often allow. Whereas some people would not consider planting much before May or June, I could be harvesting by the time traditional neighborhood gardeners were just getting started.

As we entered our second full growing season, we raised cauliflower, broccoli, beans, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, a variety of dark leafy greens, several different types of lettuce, several herbs, and edible flowers. One Tower Garden® was dedicated strictly to strawberries. Because of the different micro-climates that exist on our hillside, we had warm weather crops growing on our deck, and cooler weather crops growing in our terrace hillside garden. One of the best aspects of the Tower Garden® was that we had virtually no issues related to dirt-borne predators. There was no need for any herbicides or pesticides with the Tower Gardens®, even when I had the reservoirs set in the dirt of our terraced hillside garden. The joy of watching my girls harvest strawberries directly from the Tower Garden® whenever they walked by was delightful!

Click photos above to enlarge

Q: Doug, how did you transition from the small greenhouse to a larger one?

By the second winter I realized that I needed to find a more permanent solution to my portable plastic pop-up green house so we purchased a larger 10 ft. x 12ft. metal-framed polycarbonate structure.

Q: Mitra, do you like the winter produce?

At this point, I turn my nose when I walk into Whole Foods and see a pathetic looking bunch of organic kale with a price tag of $5. And it is wilted! I saw a TED talk where an urban gardener said: “Growing your own food is like printing money!”, and I have to agree. It is not just the cost of the food at stake; it is preventative health care and savings down the road. I am convinced that the biggest drain on a household’s budget is health care, and most people have no idea what poor health (from poor eating habits and lifestyle) actually costs them in the long run.

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Q: Mitra and Doug, what is next for you?
Our experience with the Tower Garden® Farm has been nothing short of extraordinary. We try to live our lives with as little impact as possible; but, as my brother-in-law points out, one can never do enough to minimize one’s carbon footprint.

The Tower Garden®, being a closed-loop system with no run-off, has brought about an even greater awareness of the relationship that we humans have with Mother Earth, and allows us to do our own part in an even greater way in terms of minimizing our impact. Whether it is food safety, nutritional status, environmental impact, sustainability, or cost, I really feel that the Tower Garden® is a game-changer on so many levels. In addition, it provides any family with an opportunity to contribute to their own well being, and that of the planet. It is the most fun—with the least amount of effort—that a family can have. And the education will last for generations.

Because our children are the planet’s future, we started a science project at our children’s school, lending them a Tower Garden® for the school year. This led some of the teachers to get excited about a bigger project, teaching sustainable living. Next school year, we will donate a family farm of three towers to the school as a part of this project.

Teaching the next generation about food production, and its relation to human health, is an important educational piece that is mostly missing today. Many schools are incorporating gardens into their schools as a way to bring in this missing piece. The Tower Gardens® just make the gardening venture more fun and productive. They also illustrate water conservation, because using a closed system avoids runoff. Today’s kids know that their parents—as well as previous generations—are leaving behind a world wrought with complex societal issues and environmental pollution. It is nice to expose them to elegant solutions such as Tower Gardens®, so they can have hope in their hearts about their future.

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