ENCINITAS — Pierre Sleiman began experimenting with hydroponic farming in his garage as a college student four years ago. These days, his company, the newest tenant on Ecke Ranch, is on the cutting edge of organic farming.
Sleiman, now in his mid-20s, studied computer science and business in school — not agriculture. And he doesn’t come from a family of farmers. But through hard work and a lot of trial and error, he’s made Go Green Agriculture a key piece in Ecke Ranch’s future.
Last year, the Carlsbad-based nonprofit Leichtag Foundation bought the 67-acre Ecke Ranch. Among its goals for the property, the foundation aims to promote innovative community and commercial farming techniques, including organic hydroponics.
“The foundation has a vision for what they want to do on the property, as far as this new high-tech type of agriculture, that invites youth and a new way of doing things,” Sleiman said. “We’re very excited to be a part of that.”
In Go Green Agriculture’s greenhouse, lettuce, kale and spinach are harvested throughout the year — all without dirt or tractors. Here’s how it works: Instead of soil, the produce is kept in trays several feet off the ground. Nutrient-rich water is pumped to the roots of the plants via channels underneath the trays. Water that isn’t absorbed by the plants is collected by a tank and circulates back into the system.
“At other farms, you have seasons,” Sleiman said. “Here it’s just nonstop.”
There are plenty of advantages to the soil-free approach — insects, compost and pathogens like E. coli aren’t an issue. Plus, there’s no runoff, so Go Green Agriculture uses 85 percent less water than the average farm.
Hydroponic farming is all about tempering the environment. After moving onto the property this past December, Go Green retrofitted the roof of a greenhouse once used for cultivating the poinsettias that made the Eckes famous, to control the amount of sunlight that creeps in. And other variables like temperature and humidity are continuously collected via sensors and analyzed.
In theory, it sounds like simple automation, or so Sleiman thought after reading several books about the technique when he was first getting into hydroponic farming.
In practice, Sleiman said pinpointing the exact conditions that sprout healthy crops took a lot of research and development. Before leasing six acres on Ecke Ranch, Go Green operated a nearby half-acre plot where Sleiman said he “failed pretty much every way imaginable.”
“We lost crop after crop for a year,” Sleiman said. “It was the steepest learning curve imaginable.”
Now, with the formula perfected, Go Green delivers agriculture to local restaurants and grocers like Seaside Market nearly every day, and Go Green is eyeing other plots of land in California for expansion.
“We approach this strictly from a technical or engineering standpoint,” said Sleiman, who runs Go Green with the help of his mom, sister and dad. “We think that’s unique in the farming world.”
Jim Farely, president and CEO of the Leichtag Foundation, said the foundation is in the beginning stages of drawing up plans for a variety of community and educational farming programs at Ecke Ranch. Alongside these, he envisions a host of farming businesses dedicated to sustainability and supplying the local market with produce — and Go Green is the first piece of the puzzle.
“Go Green Agriculture will be like the Nordstrom in our agricultural shopping center,” Farely said. “Around them, there will be all sorts of small, urban farming businesses.”
Preference for plots of land will go to “young farmers with big ideas,” Farely said.
Currently, there are two other tenants on Ecke Ranch: flower grower Dramm and Echter, as well as the Dutch-based Agribio Group. This past fall, Agribio Group purchased the business assets of the international Paul Ecke Ranch company, including the intellectual property and growing operations in Guatemala.
The Leichtag Foundation agreed to lease about six acres of land on Ecke Ranch to Agribio for three years. After the lease is up, Agribio will likely leave, Farely said.
For the time being, Go Green is drawing positive attention to Ecke Ranch. Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, recently visited Go Green during a trip to California to learn more about the benefits of hydroponic farming, as well as the challenges of the practice.
Many young farmers are eligible for grants to help them get started. Yet there are fewer available for young hydroponic growers since it’s such a new technique and not always classified as farming.
“The Secretary of Agriculture coming here — that’s really exciting and shows we’re going in the right direction,” Farely said.
Paul Ecke III, who made the decision to sell Ecke Ranch to the Leichtag Foundation, said that all the recent changes are exciting. For one, he noted that Go Green is the first food-related agricultural company on the property.
“There’s a lot of good coming to fruition,” Ecke said. “I love seeing what they’re doing.”