DECEMBER 2016 - REBEKAH POSTUPAK
NOVEMBER 19TH, 2016 - ABBY ELLIN
Dylan Ratigan, who resigned as host of a talk show on MSNBC in 2012, is a co-founder of Helical Holdings, which packs hydroponics, solar power and communications gear into shipping containers.
When Dylan Ratigan was last on daily television, he was often in a bit of a rage. After two highly publicized rants about unseemly ties between corporations and politicians on MSNBC, he left his show in 2012.
Disillusioned, he decided that rather than complain about the state of the world, he would at least try to be part of the solution.
He was especially intrigued by something he had heard over the years from both Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and war veterans: “If you really want to combat conflicts, bring the things that we fight over,” said Mr. Ratigan, 44. “Don’t bring more bullets and boots — bring water, food, shelter, communications, so we can empower women and children who are physically left in the villages.”
That took him, eventually, to this line of questioning: Why not use hydroponics, solar panels and reverse osmosis water filtration to reduce poverty and conflict, in the United States and abroad? Why not use agriculture technology to help people in inner cities, refugee camps or war zones, and after natural disasters? And why not recruit veterans to help with everything from manufacturing to installation to operations?
“The vets I was meeting argued that easily deployed resource kits that can be packed and unpacked from a container are the best way to do this,” Mr. Ratigan said. “This continues the same mission but with a new set of equipment.”
Mr. Ratigan moved to California and volunteered at Archi’s Acres, in Escondido, which trains veterans for careers in agriculture. He taught communications and business development, and his interest grew along with the crops.
Through a mutual friend, Mr. Ratigan met Kohlie Frantzen, an oilman from Lafayette, La., who had lived through Hurricane Katrina. At Mr. Ratigan’s urging, Mr. Frantzen completed the six-week training class at Archi’s and became a certified hydroponic organic farmer (Mr. Ratigan did not). Not long after, the two men formed a manufacturing and design company, Helical Holdings, investing a few million dollars between them.
The company’s first product is the Outpost, a 20- or 40-foot shipping container that can house a hydroponic farm and a solar powerstation, and provide Wi-Fi and satellite communication.
The Outpost includes a filtration system that can provide up to 4,000 gallons of clean water a day. It can also generate 45 kilowatt-hours of solar power, and can produce 2,300 heads of leafy greens a week. It uses a fifth of the water and a tenth of the land of a traditional organic farm, the company says. Each unit costs $125,000 to $500,000, depending on size and configuration, and can be erected anywhere.
“It’s like a hair dryer with a set of adapters,” said Eric G. Strauss, the executive director of the Center for Urban Resilience at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. “You plug into any adapter in the world.”
Urban agriculture — growing food on vacant lots, on rooftops or in inner cities — is not new. Freight Farms and PodPonics grow produce inside shipping containers; Ikea sells hydroponic indoor gardening kits in its British stores.
Farm From a Box, which started in 2013, takes an approach similar to that of Helical Holdings. Brandi DeCarli, 39, a co-founder of Farm From a Box, said both companies help communities become more sustainable or can help them rebuild after crises.
“Shifting the focus from large-scale mass production to production by the masses can help contribute to greater stability in the food system,” she said.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 795 million people worldwide suffer from chronic undernourishment. Nearly all live in developing nations, where poverty and conflicts over limited resources are rampant.
While the Helical Holdings containers have not been used overseas yet, Mr. Ratigan said he was in preliminary talks with the United States Agency for International Development, the United States Department of Agriculture and representatives from the Mexican, French, Kuwaiti, Canadian and Philippine governments.
An Outpost has been installed at an elementary school in Lafayette, La. There is also one at Patriot Farms of America, in Berryville, Va., which trains veterans in agriculture and is a nonprofit partner of Helical Holdings. Patriot Farmers was founded by Kory Apton, the wife of Phil Griffin, Mr. Ratigan’s former boss at MSNBC.
So far, Mr. Ratigan said, the Outposts in Louisiana and Virginia have purified 75,000 gallons of water while growing 13,000 leafy greens and 1,200 pounds of vine crops, such as cucumbers, tomatoes and watermelons. They have also created 28 jobs.
Mr. Ratigan said in general he did not miss the grind of daily television, although a part of him wishes he were on the air for postelection coverage. His temper still flares, especially during the news. “But I’m better at seeing U.S. politics for what it is — a very sick system in need of help,” he said.
“The people of America are painfully aware of the fact that a few very wealthy people have controlled our politicians for years, and Hillary Clinton is a symbol for that relationship,” he said. “It’s why Senator Sanders and President-elect Trump had so much support, and it’s why Mr. Trump won.”
In addition to his work with Helical Holdings, he stays busy by minding his stakes in two financial companies, producing films and serving as a “global brand ambassador” for HotelPlanner.com.
Mr. Ratigan said the biggest surprise was realizing how much time and money it took to start a business.
But he said he was proud that he was finally putting his money where his opinionated mouth was, even though the uncertainty of the entrepreneurial life makes it a double-edged sword.
“When I’m well rested, I like it,” he said. “When I’m tired, it is scary.”
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SEPTEMBER 5, 2015 - VAL VAN METER,
BERRYVILLE — A Clarke County farm is taking on a new role: teaching military veterans how to earn a living from the land.
Kory Apton, 51, co-owner with her brother Keith Apton of Hill and Dale Farm on Parshall Road, east of Berryville, has a vision that combines organic farming, hydroponics and classroom training in agriculture business and marketing while teaching entrepreneurship and sustainability.
Called Patriot Farmers of America, Kory Apton said it will be especially helpful for military veterans returning to civilian life and looking for a meaningful job.
Apton has recruited a number of partners for the teaching project, including the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service and Virginia Tech, along with a company that builds a technically advanced greenhouse, to bring the vision to reality.
A website for the project launches this month. Classes have not yet begun.
Corey Childs, livestock specialist with the extension service, calls Apton’s vision “really outstanding.”
The enterprise at Hill and Dale Farm folds in perfectly with Virginia Tech’s “Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Program,” which was begun to encourage more young people to get into farming.
The average Virginia farmer is 591/2 years old,
according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and 36 percent of them are over 65.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has $20 million in a grant fund to support such programs by colleges and universities.
Childs said the Hill and Dale Farm project, on its 300 acres, will support an “underserved group,” who will emerge with a skill set “they can take anywhere.”
Childs said he expects a number of Virginia Cooperative Extension Service specialists to teach classes at Hill and Dale, including horticultural specialist Mark Sutphin, from the Frederick County office.
Apton sees Patriot Farmers of America creating jobs for veterans and “all proud Americans,” she said.
“It’s not just veterans,” Apton added. “We have to be more inclusive.”
But she sees veterans as the perfect people to take on the task of feeding the world.
“Veterans are a natural fit to learn farming. They are used to working hard and having a mission.”
She sees her nonprofit farming operation as a way to get specialized education in sustainable farming practices to the next generation of farmers and landowners.
She is already growing 100 acres of grains without chemicals, and a neighbor’s cattle —grazing at Hill and Dale — could provide hands-on training in handling livestock.
Apton, a former television producer for sports programs in New York City, said she decided to start the program because “this is the time in my life to give back.”
She was inspired by talking to broadcast journalist Dylan Ratigan, a co-founder of Helical Holdings, the company that builds the greenhouse that Apton has brought in to begin food production at Hill and Dale.
Childs was impressed with the greenhouse, which is scheduled to produce its first crop of hydroponically grown lettuce in October.
Sale of fresh greens to local restaurants and other outlets will help support the project and provide marketing experience for trainees.
“It’s a neat idea,” Childs said.
Called a Helical Outpost, the greenhouse comes in a special shipping container that has a number of unusual functions.
The greenhouse itself is “plug and play,” Apton said, requiring a minimum amount of knowledge in electricity and plumbing.
The storage container also houses a filtering system that can clean 2,000 gallons of water a day, and the top unfolds to produce its own electricity with an array of solar panels.
“It’s preprogrammed and prewired,” said Kohlie Frantzen, co-founder of Helical Holdings, who oversaw the setup for Apton.
He envisions these greenhouses going to places where there are “no Lowes or Home Depots” to get parts, so everything is standardized and in the storage container. The idea, said Frantzen, is the greenhouse can be put down in a parking lot, or an abandoned lot, and begin producing food in days.
The emptied container can become a shop for selling produce or a classroom for teaching greenhouse techniques.
Frantzen envisions the greenhouses going to developing countries.
“We fight over things we don’t have.” Providing food, clean water and electricity for communications could be a big step, Frantzen said, toward the world John Lennon conjured in his song “Imagine.”
Derek Riddick, 25, a veteran of the U.S. Army, is thinking along those lines.
Farming is a big industry, said the Chesapeake native, but “not a lot of people my age are getting into it.”
Riddick has gotten a jump on the program by arriving early to help set up the greenhouse.
“I’ve always had a thing for nature,” he said.
Riddick is also concerned about the environment and shares Apton’s worries about what chemicals are doing to the food supply and agriculture.
And, he added, in the future, he’d like to return to the Eastern Shore and begin a similar project, teaching youngsters from poverty areas how to grow their own food and start their own agricultural businesses.
Apton, too, is looking ahead. The barn area planned for classrooms could also offer her a chance to put her television production skills to work.
She’d like to have a commercial kitchen in the building where recipes, using foods produced on the farm, could be turned into nutritious meals.
With a television production studio there, those meals could become a cooking show.
“We’re growing more than vegetables,” Apton said of the project.
“We’re growing careers. We’re growing the next generation of farmers and leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement. We’re growing healthy lives.”
— Contact Val Van Meter at email@example.com