A Hydroponic Urban Farming Family Affair

Dustin Lang didn’t set out to become an urban farmer. In fact, after high school he went on to study and practice corporate law. That is, until he was drawn back to the urban farm that he now runs together with his father Glen and father-in-law Jim Loy.

The aptly named LL Urban Farms in Raleigh, North Carolina, established by the Lang and Loy families in 2012, is a true family affair. The families first connected when their two eldest children, Dustin and Taylor Loy (now husband and wife), met in high school.

Coincidentally, at the time, both Dustin’s father and his future father-in-law were approaching retirement age and looking for viable small business opportunities to pursue. They looked at the potential of greenhouse agriculture and controlled environment systems, and despite the fact that neither of them had any previous professional experience in farming, decided to start a business to grow food for the local marketplace.The internet became their primary source of instruction in what would be a sharp learning curve.

“They call themselves YouTube farmers, because they learned the entire process of building and operating greenhouses online,” says Dustin.

LL Urban Farms consists of four greenhouses that each measure approximately 40 feet wide by 100 feet long. The farm grows five varieties of lettuce and three varieties of tomatoes. The greenhouses are outfitted with hydroponic systems that Loys and Langs built themselves.

“They’re a pain in the butt,” Dustin says with a wry laugh as he explains that the farm’s controlled environment agriculture system has been a work in progress that has required some tweaking. With respect to operational startup costs, Dustin explains that to purchase and set up the internal infrastructure for a single greenhouse cost about $120,000.

The farm produces about 1000 pounds of tomatoes and 600 pounds of lettuce each week, when in full production.

The farm sells approximately 80 percent of this produce to wholesale distributors. They distribute the other 20% directly to local businesses with which they maintain strong relationships.

LL Urban Farms also operates a “farm stand on steroids” on site that features seasonal local produce, poultry, and seafood that it sources from local area producers. The farm stand’s offerings include everthing from local honey, free range eggs, and local dairy, to local cheese, fresh NC seafood, and pasture raised beef, pork, & chicken.

Selling produce locally, embracing the local food movement, and stocking locally grown product is core to the farm’s business model, and a key to its success.

From combined operations on one acre of land, LL Urban Farms brings in about $500,000 in revenue per year.

LL Urban Farms operates about ten months out of the year as peak summer temperatures make it too difficult to profitably grow tomatoes and lettuce.

The secret to the farm’s success, Dustin says, has been taking it one step at a time.

“We started with the farm stand and then we added one greenhouse. Then we added two more, and I think the incremental approach definitely helped us get to where we are.”

He says that there have been issues all along the way and that there was a learning curve at each step. “Luckily my dad has a tech background so he’s relatively business savvy – and my father-in-law has a background in management – so we’ve been able to leverage their experience quite a bit.” That, combined with Dustin’s energy and enthusiasm, and the efforts of the family members that help run and work the farm, has propelled LL Urban Farms forward.

“We’ve provided five people with full-time work for five years now,” Dustin adds, referring to himself and family members who run the farm.

“You’re working for yourself – there’s a lot to recommend it,” he says when asked about the benefits of starting an entrepreneurial urban farming endeavor.

He spends at least 20 hours a week in the greenhouse. “It’s physical labor, it’s a little demanding, but it’s also very rewarding. When you harvest a thousand pounds of tomatoes at the end of the week – it’s something you can feel good about.”

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