This is Jean McMillen interviewing Geoffrey Drury of 111 Granite Avenue, Canaan, Ct. The date is May 7, 2012. He is going to speak to us about the background and history of Agrownautics and Lakeville Lettuce.
JM:May I have your full name?
JM:And you were born?
GD:January 12, 1945.
JM:Your parents’ names?
GD:Roger and Virginia Drury
JM:Do you have siblings?
GD:I have three of them; one older brother named Tom who lives in Pittsfield, (Mass.) a younger brother Daniel who lives in the Boston area, and a youngest sister Julia who lives in Pittsfield, also.
JM:What is your education?
GD:I went to Sheffield Center School in Sheffield, (Mass.) through the sixth grade, actually through the fourth grade and then went to 5 and 6 grade at Mt Everett Regional the first years that it opened. Then I went to St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire for high school, Amherst College and Yale Law School.
JM:How did you get involved with Agrownautics?
GD:I got involved with Agrownautics because I was a personal friend of Graham Davidson. I knew him from my high school years in Sheffield where he had a summer place. When he decided that he wanted to form a corporation to undertake the venture that he visualized for Agrownautics, he was in New York and I was in New York working in a large law firm. He asked me if as a lawyer I would form the company for him which I did in 1976,
JM:What was Graham’s original vision?
GD:Graham’s vision for Agrownautics came out of the Arab oil embargo in 1974. His hunch, it was more than a hunch, was that it was going to become unreasonably expensive to transport fresh produce across the country from California to the northeast because of rising fuel prices. He saw an opportunity to produce fresh vegetables in the northeast to avoid that expensive and extended transportation
connection. He thought by putting the science of hydroponics together with his business background that it should be possible to do local production for local consumption.
JM:Who were his original partners?
GD:His first partner was a hydroponic tomato grower named Tom Gaucher who had I believe actually failed at growing tomatoes, but their mutual agreement was that the reason he had failed was because tomatoes were not a good candidate for hydroponic growing in the northeast because of the amount of heat and light that they required. The thought was that if they grew instead Butter head lettuce, which was a more efficient converter of solar energy into plant material that they should be able to make a commercially viable production system and business out of it. Graham then hired my younger brother Dan Drury to actually help him with the initial experimentation, construction, development of growing systems and so forth because as I recall, Tom dropped out of the venture very early on, I think because of personal problems that he was having. So Graham and Dan rented a greenhouse from Hotchkiss and renovated it, and began experimenting with different varieties and nutrient solutions and growing systems.
JM:After they finished with the Hotchkiss facility, I believe they moved to another location in Salisbury which would be where?
GD: On what is now Salmon Kill Road, and was then Lime Rock Road. That was made possible because in 1978 after they had been experimenting for a little over a year I think, Graham managed to persuade J. H. Whitney & Co. which was one of the premier venture capital firms in New York City to fund a commercial scale up of what he was doing. During the winter of 1978, while I was actually recuperating in the hospital in Brooklyn from a an attack of ulcerative colitis, we closed a financing with J. H. Whitney and had the money necessary to actually build a larger commercial scaled facility in Salisbury where Graham was then living. He had moved from New York in about 1976 or 77. Gus Pope, who owned the field on Lime Rock Road, was very interested in the idea of a clean, environmentally-friendly local industry and was willing to lease the property to Graham for a reasonable price. That is where the first greenhouse was built in the fall and winter of 1978.
JM:What did the facility look like? Was it just a green house or did it have different sections for different processes?
GD:That’s a very good question. It gets into the issue of what the process was that we used. Graham’s early idea, deriving I think from what Tom Gaucher suggested and what he learned from academics, principally at Rutgers University, was that he would use a hybrid system of growth chamber fully controlled indoor artificially illuminated and heated space to grow seedlings. He would then move them out to a greenhouse for the grow out phase when they were further apart, and you couldn’t pack as many of them in. So the facility in Salisbury was a combination of what is called a butler-type steel building; you see them all over the place for farm supply and so forth and so on, but then off the side of it was a plastic covered greenhouse. The first one we built was a quarter of an acre, and we had inside
the steel building two large growth chambers; one divided in half with a very large array of large high intensity discharge lights on a gantry overhead that could be left on 24 hours a day and could be moved back and forth on an enormous central rail in the ceiling so that they illuminated one half of the growth chamber for 12 hours and then slid through the wall and illuminated the other growth chamber for 12 hours. Plants were all started in there and then were moved out into the greenhouse. That steel building also had the offices; it had a large cooler that we stored produce in before it was shipped, it had our loading dock, and had the mugs for the employees for their coffee breaks.
JM:I read in the article that you gave me that there was a message taped to the refrigerator,”Make sure you eat all the doughnuts before you leave.”
GD:That’s very true, there were doughnuts as well. I mention the mugs because there was one memorable day on which the shelf on which all the mugs, everybody had their own china mug, I don’t remember if somebody was climbing up and grabbed it at the wrong time or whether it simply hadn’t been fastened on well enough, but the shelf came off the wall and all the mugs smashed completely on the floor. It was a concrete floor and it did quite a number on the mugs.
JM:Could you describe the process from seed to fully developed plant? In other words what was the medium it was placed into, what was the time frame for each stage?
GD:I may have difficulty with some of the subdividing time frames, but the process was one of seeding, and I am going to talk about lettuce at this point, although we also grew spinach, and several other crops. Salisbury lettuce was the one around which Graham’s vision focused, and it was the one that was the dominant crop in that facility while it was open. We used so called pelletized seed, each lettuce seed had a little clay coating on it to make it about the size of a beebee so that you could handle it. I designed and built mechanical seeders that would allow us to seed 81 seeds at a time into half of a sheet, as we called them, a sheet of foam cubes manufactured by the same company that makes the green foam that is at the bottom of all commercial flower arrangements, the oasis company. Each of these little cubes was about an inch square and an inch and a quarter deep with a hole in the top. The seeds were deposited into those holes, and the sheets of cubes 162 of them in a sheet sat in plastic trays, the kind that are used in most commercial greenhouses, so called 10/20 trays because they are 10 X 20 inches. We seeded into those trays which had slots in the bottom; the trays were then put into larger troughs in the growth chambers where they were immersed in nutrient solution from below. This is a liquid nutrient which was pumped into the larger trays that the smaller trays sat in so that the foot of each cube was wetted from below and it wicked up the moisture. The seeds would then germinate, and after they had reached a height of an inch above the top of the cube, the cubes were all separated, cut apart, and spaced into plastic foam pellets, a material called ethafoam which until that time was used primarily for shock resistant packaging for valuable pieces of mechanical equipment. We used it because it was closed cell foam that didn’t absorb any of the nutrient solution, and it could be easily cleaned. We had these pallets made with holes punched in them and a grid on the bottom so that the
individual cubes with the seed which now had little seedlings in them could be spaced into the holes in these pallets which then floated on the surface of the nutrient solution in the troughs that we had in the growth chambers. There were two spacings that were used: 1) when they were taken out of the 10/20 trays and put into the pallets for the first time. They were close together as I mentioned about an inch on center in the initial trays; 2) then they were about two to two and one half inches on center as the closest spacing in the pallets. Then every other plant was taken out and put into another pallet as they got larger so that they were about three inches apart. Then at this point I don’t remember exactly how old they were, I think it was around 14 days that they were then taken out into the greenhouse, and re -spaced again into larger pallets, same material, same idea of holes in a white foam pallet about 1 1/2 inch thick, 2 by 3 feet, with a grid on the bottom to keep them from falling through. At that point they were about 6 ½” on centers and were put into large troughs which were concrete bottomed sloped troughs probably about 10 feet wide and 40-50 feet long with a pitch down toward the center of the green house, and an arrangement that pumped nutrient solution in at the top, flowed under the pallets which floated on top of it down to the bottom, drained out and then was pumped back again to the top. This whole system is what is referred to as nutrient film technology: the plants are not put into any kind of perlite or vermiculite or any other rooting medium. They simply sit in these cubes into which they are originally seeded, and are handled that way, and ultimately harvested that way with the roots going down through the cube into the nutrient solution, the stem of the plant and the leaves of the plant grow up above. As long as you provide enough space, they are able to mature into full sized heads of lettuce. The time period from seed to harvest was approximately 36 days at the best times of year, which were not necessarily the sunniest. June seemed to be about our best time because it was a good combination of long days and reasonable temperatures. The longest time was about 58 days from seed to harvest in the middle of winter, largely limited by light levels, but also to some degree by temperature because it was also colder then.
JM:Where did you get your work force?
GD:The work force was local. I do not remember what the furthest was that anybody came from to work at the Salisbury facility. We had a lot from Salisbury; we had some from Sheffield, Sharon, Cornwall, Canaan, and Falls Village. It was something in which a lot of people were interested, and we got good press and good reports from employees. We never had any difficulty in finding good people who wanted to come and work there. It really caught a lot of people’s attention and fancy.
JM:How did you market your product?
GD:We started at Shagroys as it then was.
JM: With George Ernest?
GD:Yes, and Graham was the principal marketer at the very beginning, taking cases of the product which we at that point packaged in clear plastic bags with the cube on to maximize freshness and shelf
life. Graham took it first to Shagroy, and as we produced more, actually I think he started selling at Shagroy with plants that were grown in the Hotchkiss greenhouse. Then obviously once we started in the ¼ acre, we rapidly outgrew Shagroy’s ability to sell what we had. So it was a matter of, we bought a panel truck, a van, and then started taking it around to other outlets in the immediate area. Before very long we hired a driver, a marketer, who did all the deliveries. Every time he saw anything that looked remotely like a grocery store, he would stop off and run in the door with a carton and make his sales pitch.
JM:What were some of the products that were grown besides the lettuce and the spinach?
GD:The other principal one was sprouts which we began doing after we had been there about five years. Another man who had been growing sprouts heard about us and was having difficulty finding a place for his business and came to ask if we would be interested in picking up that as a natural concomitant of what we were doing. So we did sprouts for a number of years. It was never a terribly successful part of the business. One of the nasty problems we had was that you were required to put a net weight on every package. Sprouts dry out over time, so we had to learn the hard way how much we had to over pack in order to be sure that by the time the inspectors in New York City were weighing cups of our sprouts a week later they would still weigh enough so that we weren’t in violation of packaging rules and regulations. There was constant experimentation with other crops; peppers, various kinds of squash, cress and so forth. We hired fairly early in the process a PhD. horticulturalist in Allen Lang that we brought into the country from Nationalist China. He was always looking for other things that we might grow. I remember the first time he brought me some arugula; I don’t think he knew what arugula was supposed to look like, so he grew it into what was about 2 feet tall. He gave me a leaf to try and I remember saying to him, “Allen, this is tastes like green skunk!” It was much too strong. We never went anywhere with any of that.
JM:That’s descriptive, certainly.
GD:It was accurate, too.
JM:I know the business expanded to one or two other locations. Would you briefly tell us a little bit about each of the other locations?
GD:I will. I should perhaps have said that when J. H. Whitney funded the Salisbury facility, their vision was that this would be something that could be replicated readily all over the place. The idea was to come up with a cookie cutter and an operations manual that would enable fresh produce to be grown in inhospitable climates. So from the very beginning the goal was to expand as quickly as we could and have multiple production facilities. The first actual expansion we did thought was in Salisbury after the ¼ acre greenhouse that was built with the initial butler building. We expanded the building and added 1/3 of an acre of greenhouse on the backside: first always known to us as the west greenhouse and the second as the east greenhouse. That was done in 1981 I believe; in 1982-83 we built a much larger, a
one acre greenhouse, in Hopewell Junction, New York, and then in 1984-85 built another one acre greenhouse in Washingtonville, PA. That was interesting for 2 reasons because 1) it was designed to use waste heat from an electric generating plant belonging to Western Pennsylvania Power & Light which was interested both from a technological point of view and a public relations point of view in trying to develop uses for the waste heat, enormous amounts of waste heat that they threw up into the sky from the cooling towers that they had for condensing water from their electrical generators 2) also because that was the place where we started scaling up for the first time. The one acre that we built was intended to be the first quarter of a four acre facility. We never actually did build the other three acres, but that one was interesting because it had the best technology we had developed about growing systems and also it was the lowest cost of production because of the use of the waste heat, and a special electric rate that we were able to negotiate with PP&L’s help with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Utility so that we were able to use more supplemental lighting there in the greenhouse as well as in the growth chamber areas.
JM:How many years did Lakeville Lettuce in Salisbury actually exist?
GD:Good question. We started building, well if you go back to Hotchkiss, you are talking about 1977 through the bankruptcy that was filed in Feb. of 1989. The first commercial facility was built in the fall and winter of 1978. I remember it was winter because we had to thaw the sandwiches we were bringing for lunch on top of the kerosene salamanders that we used ourselves to keep ourselves from freezing to death.
JM;That would be a winter experience!
GD:That was a winter experience.
JM:What was the cause of the bankruptcy?
GD:The cause of the bankruptcy, there is probably more than one cause, a multifactorial situation. There were two problems, basically. One was that it turned out that although Graham’s idea had been that the academics of the horticultural world had worked out the technology for what was needed to create a viable commercial hydroponic venture, what he needed to do was to marry his business expertise with existing and readily available technological expertise to create a business. That was not the case. Once we actually began trying to solve all the problems that commercial scale hydroponic production involves, we discovered that the academics, although they had learned a lot about some pieces of the puzzle, had never put the puzzle together. It took us much longer than anybody had expected to solve enough of those practical scaling-up problems, so that we had to borrow a lot of money and equity investors had to put in a lot of money, so that there was a great deal of borrowed money. The second problem was that, maybe I’ll end up with three problems, lettuce which was the crop that Graham had fastened on because it could be grown at relatively low temperatures with relatively low light levels and was relatively easy to grow was also relatively easy for everybody else to grow. We attracted through consistently interested press a host of imitators who were attracted by the
idea really had no idea what their cost really were, but when they had a greenhouse full of lettuce all of a sudden ready to sell, discovered that if they simply undercut our price they found a lot of interest on the part of the stores. So we faced a constantly rotating series of competitors much smaller than ourselves, much less sophisticated than ourselves, perhaps, but who ran themselves into the ground and themselves into bankruptcy and pulled us along with them by keeping the price down. The third problem perhaps was that it was lettuce. I think we ultimately concluded that lettuce was too much of a commodity. The Arabs did not keep the faucets turned off on the oil. Lettuce kept coming in from California through inexpensive trucking. You couldn’t even with high quality, high freshness, freedom from pesticides and the other things that were a part of our marketing attraction actually maintain a real premium price for the product. There simply wasn’t enough of a margin with the competition from California and the competition from other local hydroponic growers to support the kind of debt we had taken on in order to build these facilities and learn the things we needed to learn. The combination of those and when we finally got to late ’88 and early ’89, J.H. Whitney who had continued to pour money into the operation, as we went along, decided that they were not convinced that in fact we were going to be able to develop the model that they had hoped for that could be replicated endlessly, perhaps in the Middle East, or in the Northeast as well. They announced that they were not going to put any more money in. We had some particular production problems during about a six week run in early ’89, and it became obvious that we were simply not going to be able to meet payroll and meet other obligations. Fortunately we did recognize that early enough and filed for bankruptcy for Chapter 7 before things were really in a dreadful state. We were able to pay all the employees what they were owed. We were able to pay all the suppliers what they were owed. In effect it was only the equity investors who ended up taking a major bath.
JM:Is there any other information that I haven’t asked you about that you would like to add to this interview?
GD:Yes, I would like to add one other thing, and that is while the original vision of hydroponic production of lettuce in particular in the Northeast made possible by the cost of shipping from California did not prove what Graham hoped it would prove and was not ultimately economically successful. He did lay the foundation through the work that was done during those eleven years or so for first of all other hydroponic operations that had been successful subsequently, but also for a successor to Agrownautics itself. One of the principal equity investors in Agrownautics who had come on relatively late in the process decided that he thought that there was enough promise in it so he bought the Pennsylvania facility out of the bankruptcy and transformed into a non lettuce producing operation, doing instead a much lower volume, higher grade, if you will, salad green called Mache, or Lamb’s Lettuce which had previously been imported only from Europe. He has been very successful with that. So I think in many ways, although the details of Graham’s vision may not have worked out the way he hoped. The vision itself has been carried on, and I think has ultimately been very successful.
JM:Thank you very much for the interview. It has been very informative, and I have learned a great deal.