Mitch Hagney stands in his hydroponic system lit by blacklight
Farming Community
Mitch Hagney '13 grows vegetables using hydroponic agriculture
Sunday, February 1, 2015

For someone practically fresh out of school, Mitch Hagney has certainly racked up an astonishing list of accomplishments, all connected to his passion for the environment. Just watching him tend to his hydroponic crops of Thai basil, Genovese basil, and mint—flourishing inside a glowing 40-foot shipping container in an east-side San Antonio warehouse—you quickly learn that Hagney is in this for the long haul.

There was nothing in the New Hampshire native’s childhood that foreshadowed a career in environmentalism, much less agriculture. “I never gardened until I got to Trinity,” he says. A debater in high school, Hagney was recruited by Trinity’s highly ranked debate team and given a sizable scholarship. He noticed that the running theme behind his federal policy debates focused primarily on environmental problems. “I was just talking, and talk is cheap. I realized that I wasn’t doing anything.”

He quit the debate team after freshman year and started doing just about everything: co-founding Trinity’s first community garden, teaching English as a second language, volunteering at the Children’s Shelter, becoming president of Students Organized for Sustainability, and leading public outreach campaigns for Solar San Antonio, to name just a few. All of this before he graduated with a double major in international studies and human communications with a minor in geoscience.

Hagney became drawn to hydroponic farming, an outgrowth of his new-found enthusiasm for agriculture. He recalls an earth surfaces processes class by Herndon Distinguished Professor Thomas W. Gardner “that I didn’t even do very well in.” An avid hiker, Hagney stood on mountaintops surprised to find that the class “was shockingly useful. I understood why a mountain exists the way it does, how landscapes work. That was very cool.”

Hagney worked for solar companies for two years, went back to New Hampshire and worked at a hydroponic retail shop called Natural Roots, attended a University of Arizona seminar for commercial hydroponic production of greenhouse tomatoes, and planned to get a job after graduation, when Rackspace co-founder Pat Condon contacted him about a hydroponic farm partnership. In 2013, LocalSprout was born, and the company’s ultra-fresh products now turn up in menu items at San Antonio’s Humble House Foods, the Monterey, One Lucky Duck, the Tuk Tuk Taproom, and in cocktails at the Brooklynite.

The company’s website, LocalSprout.com, provides an informative, easy-to-read rundown of how and why hydroponic is better: 100 percent pesticide- and herbicide-free. The entire farm—an acre’s worth of crops—uses less than 300 gallons of water a week. Growing produce in the same city to which it is sold cuts more than 95 percent of emissions associated with transportation. And on and on.

Although nothing external can affect the crops—not drought, floods, storms, hail, heat, or cold—an internal snafu can spell disaster. “Most of this technology is beta phase,” Hagney explains. “Without electricity, these plants die. My water pumps fail, these plants die.” Still, Hagney has successfully grown many thousands of crops: lettuce, arugula, spinach, sage, parsley, dill, Swiss chard, and more. He can even take special requests. “The system is set up to grow almost any salad green or herb,” he says. “Give us a call.”

Hagney also gives back, working with the nonprofit VentureLab to teach kids about agricultural entrepreneurship, serving as enthusiastic spokesperson for Trinity’s Center for the Sciences & Innovation and an alumni mentor for the Entrepreneurship Residence Hall, and contributing to the San Antonio Food Bank with produce donations and educational outreach.

Hagney’s freelance columns appear regularly online in “The Rivard Report” and “Seedstock.” In October 2014, Hagney spoke at TEDxSanAntonio on distributed urban agriculture. Not surprisingly, the final frontier holds tremendous appeal for the energetic Hagney. “As soon as someone is willing to send me, I’d like to help colonize Mars.”

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Hagney believes that climate change “is the largest environmental problem. Solve the biggest problem, make the biggest difference.” Right now, scattered application of alternative energies “isn’t sufficient to solve that problem, so what is the next most important environmental problem? I think it’s agriculture, especially agriculture being affected by climate change.”

San Antonio, he says, is ripe for growing green, both ecologically and financially: “You feel like you’re building something here, and not just your own business.” Hagney envisions the growth of more communities eating happier, healthier, and more sustainably, with goodness and fresh produce for all.

Julie Catalano helped tell Trinity's story as a contributor for the University communications team.

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