You can buy all sorts of food on the streets of downtown Shreveport. Vendors will be happy to sell you a hot dog, a burrito or even authentic Cajun gumbo from the carts and food trucks that speckle the landscape. And numerous restaurants serve everything from Mexican and Asian food, to burgers and chicken fried steak. But soon, you will be able to order fresh produce from an alley off Cotton Street and even get it delivered to your front door.
Cotton St. Farms is an indoor hydroponic farm at 406 Cotton Street with 4,500 square feet of growing space. Owner Michael Billings said some of the produce the farm will grow includes leafy greens, microgreens, herbs, edible flowers, cucumbers and tomatoes. Hydroponic farming is not new, but it is as untraditional as his family’s farming background.
“Everybody knows how plants are traditionally grown,” Billings said. “We’re just taking the soil out of the equation. We take the soil out and we put the seedling in a medium that suspends it, and we run water and nutrients over the roots. They are stimulated like they would be on a farm, but they are getting the exact amount of water, the exact amount of nutrients, the exact amount of airflow. We have lights that are calibrated for that type of plant, so they are getting the exact amount of light they need. It’s a perfect growing condition.”
Billings’s family has owned the Dixie Maze Farms north of Shreveport for about 20 years.
“I come from a farming background, but not traditional by any means,” he said. “We have been growing corn, and for the past decade or so we have had a farm-to-table vegetable farm. But we do all of our faming on 60 acres –— that in and of itself isn’t very traditional. At Dixie Maze Farms, they do the corn maze in the fall, and then in the spring and summer they have the you-pick vegetables — Ryan’s Farm. He is our farmer who grows on the property. So, we have been involved with vegetables and farming for years, just not traditionally.”
The hydroponic farm has several advantages over traditional farming, Billings said. Because the plants are not grown in dirt, there are no tractors, and therefore no diesel fuel, involved in the production process. Also, because the plants are grown indoors, no herbicides, pesticides or fungicides are used. And the vertical growing method is efficient, he said. Where traditional farming might produce one head of lettuce per square foot, hydroponic farming can produce 15 heads of lettuce because they are stacked vertically. Every one of those heads of lettuce, and everything else grown at Cotton St. Farms, can now be certified as organic, too.
“It’s an organic process, because we are giving the plant the exact nutrients,” he said. “They’re delicious. They’re huge. They’re green. They develop on their own. There are practices in the food world where they use chemicals to ripen fruits and vegetables. We don’t have to do that. So, you get all the natural nutrients that come with self-ripening. It’s an awesome product. It’s delicious.”
Cotton St. Farms will have two primary sales channels. One will be to local restaurants. The second will be direct to consumers. A customer will be able to register at the Cotton St. Farms website, www.cottonstfarms.com, and shop for produce. Billings said in addition to the vegetables, the website will offer other products from Louisiana, including grass-fed beef, local honey and more. After the order is completed, the staff will cut the vegetables and package the orders. The groceries will be delivered to the customer’s door via Uber Food or On the Geaux Deliveries.
“We’re trying to change the way we eat food,” Billings said. “Ultra fresh. Ultra local. You’re eating it as soon as it’s picked off the vine. By doing these small farms, we are able to grow the exact needs of our consumers and give them that experience when they order food from us. We are picking it and delivering it right then and there.”
Shelly Redmond is a culinary dietician and owner of Skinny Louisiana. She thinks Cotton St. Farms not only hits on a growing trend in the market but tackles a long-standing misconception as well.
“Let’s first talk about convenience,” she said. “Grocery pickup is exploding. It is wonderful. For a Shreveport-based company to do something with produce so in less than 24 hours you have produce in your kitchen, it’s wonderful. It’s something that is the wave of the future. Really number two is, I think a lot of times when we think convenience we think unhealthy. We think fast food. We think gas station. Fast and convenient. When it’s delivered, you don’t have an excuse. You’re going to have to chop it and clean it. But is that going to be a dealbreaker? Convenience doesn’t have to be unhealthy. The myth that healthy eating has to be expensive is just that — a myth.”
Billings added that it’s the delivery process, not the process of hydroponic farming that he finds himself explaining to people most.
“Shreveport, by nature, is a farming community, and they are very successful at it. We are not bringing hydroponics to the community. There are already hydroponic farms. We’re just bringing it into the spotlight. We’re doing it in a downtown, urban environment. But the conversation of how does it work, we have that quite often,” he said. “It’s a concept that is new to Shreveport but is already functioning in big cities…We’re trying to bring it to Shreveport still a little ahead of the curve.”
Billings said Cotton St. Farms will start by growing microgreens. Microgreens are baby plants, often used as garnishes on sandwiches and such. He said some people prefer some microgreens, like cilantro, because they like the flavor of the spice without the full potency. “There’s a lot you can do with them,” Billings said. But Cotton St. Farms will offer more than microgreens and salad fixings.
“We’re going to have some really cool herbs and microgreens we just aren’t accustomed to eating in this area,” he said. “And we will have a lot of real cool recipes, ideas and suggestions. Not just recipes, but ways of using our products to heal yourself. Many of the herbs and plants we’re growing have healing properties, and we will put those on our website — how to make a tea or how to make a cold press, how to use some of nature’s medicine.”
Cotton St. Farms will go beyond delivering fresh produce directly to consumers. It will give back to the community as well, Billings said. One project he is looking at is a partnership with Caddo Magnet High School and the Northwest Louisiana Master Gardeners. Magnet High wants to become the first school with a hydroponic farming system. Billings is working with the Master Gardeners to acquire a grant to build the system for Magnet.
Billings said he also has talked to several nonprofit groups about partnering with Cotton St. Farms, including Kids in the Kitchen, Roy’s Kids and Boys II Young Men. He also has plans for the farm to work with unemployables to help them get their first jobs.
“We want to be involved everywhere we can be,” he said. “I’m learning these organizations and these projects aren’t usually a weekend thing.”
In fact, Billings said community service, not hydroponic vegetables, is his primary measure of success.
“One of the main messages isn’t that we’re growing really cool things indoors and it’s trendy and it’s cool,” he said. “We have some amazing programs that we are working to set up — social impact programs. I want Shreveport-Bossier City to keep an eye on us and support us so we can go out and build these hydroponic farms in schools, we can help these low-income neighborhoods, we can change the mentality that you have to have money to eat healthy. If we can accomplish that, and just stay in business, it would be a huge success.”
Billings and his family came to Shreveport in 1998, and he graduated from Magnet in 2001. He left the area after college and returned two years ago to be closer to his children and his family. Cotton St. Farms was birthed, in part, out of a conversation Billings had with his father after his return to Shreveport.
“My family has always been entrepreneurs. I just needed more opportunity, and my dad suggested I start a new business. I live downtown. I work downtown. I walk all over downtown. My dad has a farm. We talked about hydroponic farming. I think it was just one of those ‘I wonder what would happen if I did this’ moments,” he said. “I found this building, and it took us a year to buy it. And then I think at one point people didn’t think we were really serious. Everybody has dreams, and everybody talks about their dreams. But no one really believed I was going to grow food indoors. I think that was the last little push I needed, just to prove them wrong.”
Billings is excited to see where things have progressed.
“Then it all just kind of fell into place,” he said. “We built an amazing team. Now it’s just been like one step in front of the other. We’re doing things that have never been done here.”
All experiments need a testing phase. To test Cotton St. Farms, Billings looked at his neighbors and developed a plan to solve one of their problems.
“Our downtown community has been great,” he said. “We were open for the summertime selling summer produce, and the local residents all came down. They were buying produce daily. It’s nice to know we’re helping solve the food desert problem in the downtown area.”
Billings is eager to see the response when the business expands to full-scale operations.
“Emotionally, people are very receptive. We’ll see what happens when we start selling. Everybody’s very excited. I am proud to say we’ve been able to reach several demographics. The affluent communities in town — they have always been healthy minded,” he said. “We’re starting to connect with the less affluent neighborhoods in town, who’ve never really had the opportunity to eat healthy because grocery stores are so far away and public transportation is difficult. So, by working with some of these communities we’re able to educate people and show them how to do their own system. How to grow food in their own house with limited means. And because we will be delivering, we will take away a lot of the transportation problems.”
As Billings sat in his building, explaining the process and envisioning the farm fully operational, he reiterated his gratitude for the support he has received from the community. He also looked to the future of Cotton St. Farms.
“We’re learning as we are going,” he said. “Our neighbors are helping us… the Master Gardeners, LSUS Ag. I think that’s part of the reason we’re so excited to help the community, because in a very real sense, our community is helping us build this business. We want it to be not just a Shreveport business, but in many ways owned and run by Shreveport.”
To learn more about Cotton St. Farms, visit CottonStFarms.com.