In the B2B Business of Basil

Solopreneur Zack Wilson has hung up his hard hat in exchange for healthy harvests. He’s a building superintendent/house flipper turned modern-day farmer and the most recent farmer to join the ZipGrow community of Controlled Environment Agriculture.

Born and raised in Virginia, Zack’s indoor farm “Future Fresh Hydro,” is the first of its kind in Sterling, Virginia. Set in a 1700 sq ft warehouse in an industrial park just a stone’s throw from Dulles International Airport.

Sourcing the right location is often one of the most significant early decisions a new indoor farmer must consider. 

Warehouse? Greenhouse? Container? Pre-built? New build? 

Location, location, location!

Zack feels he found a great fit with a building that only required minor renovations and electrical upgrades to prepare for his farm build.

It was perfect for what I was looking for with a small office at the front and the warehouse section, which has a roll-up door which was essential in getting everything set up. Everything arrives on big pallets, so it made it really easy to just slide it in."

Zack purchased an introduction to commercial bundle, complete with ZipGrow™ Towers, high efficiency LED light racks. Future Fresh Hydro operates on a small scale with one row of 90 Towers, with room to scale up to five rows of Towers. “It’s honestly very manageable with one person at this size.”

His business model is business-to-business, growing and selling premium basil to chefs and restaurateurs, serving the regions of Northern Virginia and Washington DC. His day-to-day activities involve planting, harvesting, tracking progress, delivery, and cleaning, with a deep clean once a month to flush out the system and clean the reservoir.

He appreciates the freedom of being his own boss and the change in lifestyle “It’s a lot less stressful than construction.”

Zack may be new to indoor farming, but he’s been very strategic in planning out this venture, and it didn’t happen overnight. These first successful harvests of fresh, healthy basil follow 18 months of planning, coordination, research, and learning new skills in hydroponic growing. On the one side of his office space is a chalkboard backdrop of progress charts and maintenance schedules. On the opposite side, an 8-Tower Farm Wall, his original pilot farm, is a significant feature. These installations attest to his methodic planning of Future Fresh Hydro.

Test and invest

Since childhood, Zack has always had an interest in gardening; he’s grown plants in the traditional sense as a hobbyist wherever he’s lived. He first discovered hydroponics through Instagram and immediately saw an opportunity to grow food on a commercial scale. Zack purchased an 8-Tower Farm Wall, which he installed in an insulated room in his father’s shed. “I wanted to see with my own eyes how it all worked. Hands-on learning works best for me.”

Zack did most of his learning through UpStart University, an online educational platform that teaches hydroponics 101 and the business of operating an indoor farm.

Upstart University is a great resource to learn to know pretty much anything you need to know about vertical farming. The business plan modules were very helpful and tailored toward hydroponics, a very niche industry. I followed that slide by slide, gradually went through it over 6-9 months, and revised my business plan. I don't think I could have started the farm without UpStart University."

Through his account executive at ZipGrow Inc., Zack also connected with other hydroponic farmers, including Randall Rhyne from CraftGrown Farms. He visited Randall’s ZipFarm in Wilmington, NC for two days to learn the fundamentals, workflow, and operations. “He really became a mentor for me. We share a lot of information back and forth.”

Ocimum basilicum

The main crop at Future Fresh Hydro is Genevoise basil, classic sweet basil favored by food industry professionals. Same-day harvest/delivery is a policy that Zack says brings value and quality that restaurateurs can appreciate. “Chefs are saying, wow, this is amazing.”

Historically in hydroponics, basil has been a very profitable crop for many farmers. It’s easy to manage and can be grown densely. Zack is looking to maximize basil production by trialing different varieties and experimenting with spacing. He’s logging all his stats to keep track of performance.

Zack supplements his Tower crops with microgreens which have a quick turnaround and are simple to grow. His seedling station, included with his introductory bundle has been set up expressly for growing these nutrient-dense crops. A favorite is Radish,Confetti Mix from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  “They are super colorful and look really good on a plate. Chefs love them. It’s a great high-margin product to sell.”

Zack focuses his efforts on targeting independently owned establishments, Italian restaurants or small-scale restaurant groups, but wants to remain flexible to adjust his business plan as the market dictates. Coming from a trades background, he had no prior sales experience and confessed that it was one of his biggest hurdles to overcome. 

“The first sales call, I was nervous, but I have got much better at it, and it’s been fun learning the sales process and strategy and then adjusting that strategy to work for my business.”

Fortunately for Zack, his sister Megan Wilson owns a marketing company, Sweet Sauce Strategy, she helped him hone his cold call script and prepare his social media plan and website. Zack also aligned himself with two local private investors, which he was able to secure through his in-depth business plan. Zack considers his geographical area to be very foodie with many high-end restaurants, so there’s a lot of potential for future clients. He’s still learning the nuances and optimizing yields and is changing up planting densities and exploring new basil varieties.

If you put the time and effort into growing great crops, keeping everything clean, and maintaining your system, it will do a lot of the selling on its own.”

To find out more about Future Fresh Hydro, visit their website, and follow their Instagram page. 

You may also like “Getting the most out of Basil.”

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