University City

Charlotte farmer using hydroponics to grow nutrient-dense veggies

Thomas Andollina-Mueller is a farmer, but not the kind most people would envision.

There’s no soil involved, or sunlight, on his farm. He doesn’t depend on a good rain to soak his crops. He doesn’t have acres of rows to hoe.

Instead, his farm is housed in a decades-old cinderblock warehouse on 24th Street in Charlotte, sandwiched between a battery store and an abandoned brick warehouse. The uptown skyline is visible from the building’s top front step.

Andollina-Mueller is part-owner of Lila’s Garden, a hydroponic garden that set up shop in July to grow fresh, nutrient-dense vegetables for nearby communities.

“We believe in more local delivery of food, because that is really where the goodness of food is being captured,” he said. “We want to shorten the food chain.”

Most experts agree that crops grown elsewhere and trucked across the country lose a portion of their nutrients in transit. The more quickly the produce goes from field to table, the better.

But it’s not just closer proximity Lila’s Garden hopes to achieve: It’s a return to the more nutritionally dense food of the past.

According to a University of Texas at Austin study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, food today pales in comparison to the vitamin and mineral content of foods from 50-plus years ago.

The study, which analyzed U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from 1950 and 1999, found that declines in nutrients ran the gamut from iron to vitamin C, due mostly to the desire to increase the size of produce and it’s rate of growth.

“If you eat industrial-produced food, and you compare it to the food that came out of the fields 30 to 40 years ago, the nutrient density is one-seventh to one-tenth of what it used to be,” said Andollina-Mueller.

Lila’s Garden specializes in microgreens: baby sprouts harvested well before they reach adulthood. Researchers at the USDA who have studied microgreens find them four to six times more nutritionally dense than their mature counterparts.

Inside the warehouse, soil-less beds called pods – a design for which Andollina-Mueller has a patent pending – hold a field of leafy arugula, several varieties of basil and radish, and dozens of other young vegetables cut to the quick before they reach maturity.

The vegetables, cast in a purple hue by energy-saving LED lights and set in water-conserving beds, grow quickly in this ideal setting, free from the harsh elements and the pests that can plague outdoor crops.

In the short time it’s been open, Lila’s Garden has picked up more than 100 clients, from uptown restaurants to private schools to cancer patients interested in clean eating.

It’s Andollina-Mueller’s hope that these types of garden systems eventually will be able to sprout anywhere, especially in urban neighborhoods, where fresh food can be scarce.

“Once we can lower the cost and bring the technology to the market, it could lead to people creating their own envelopes everywhere,” he said. “They could have local food grown in local communities without having gigantic plants that deliver to the entire nation.”