Jacob Pechenik: Easily Grow Produce in Your Home
Jacob Pechenik is the co-founder of Lettuce Grow, a company that he co-founded with with Zooey Deschanel.
The idea is profound: they’ve created a device that lets people grow a significant quantity of produce either inside their home or outside, with a self-contained hydroponics system that’s basically foolproof.
This system represents one of the easiest ways to dramatically improve the quality of home produce while greatly reducing the carbon footprint of getting leafy greens and veggies.
As we love on this show, it really is a win-win. Just as interesting is Jacob’s own, highly unusual career path, which saw him go from trading to MIT to producing dozens of Hollywood films to founding this company.
It’s a deeply inspiring tale that I know you’ll enjoy.
Full Unedited Audio Conversation:
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2:20 – (Ross) “You touch upon growing your own food and you’ve created this very interesting device that makes it easier, which is super compelling to people like me because I have a garden space for the first time ever. I lived in apartments for years and years and now I find myself with a garden space. And growing food is tough. I’ll admit it’s a challenge, especially when you’ve got pests, you’ve got rodents, you’ve got all kinds of things that come in and eat the thing. I had a tomato plant and it was looking great. Woke up the next morning, all the tomatoes were gone. Some critter had come in and eaten them all.”
A Guaranteed Harvest
*3:11 – “We call it a farmstand, and that’s a hydroponic growing system. It holds 20 gallons of water and it can grow from 12 to 36 different plants at a time. And it does all the irrigation and everything for you. And it comes with an app. You really only need about 5 minutes a week of attention to it. But the real secret sauce are the seedlings. And I have one right here. It’s a little baby plant and we have a network of farms across the country and we do the thing that’s the hardest thing to do when you’re growing your own food. And that’s really like knowing what to grow, when to grow it, how to germinate the seeds. And we get the plants to be 2 to 3 weeks old in perfect condition, and then we send them to you to put them in that futuristic-looking device to finish growing them. So you’re pretty much guaranteed a harvest and in half the time that it would normally take to grow it.”
4:57 – “I didn’t design this for gardeners or for hobbyists or people who are already familiar with Home Depot or Lowe’s and growing their own stuff. This is designed for people who eat food and people who kill plastic plants. So the whole idea, wasn’t for me, wasn’t showing people how to grow. It was really delivering nutrition more efficiently than the current food system. So for us to be successful, our customers, our growers need to be successful. And so everything that we do is geared towards ensuring that you are going to have a harvest in three weeks and that it’s going to be on your dinner table. So that’s from the plants to the unit to our customer care, it’s foolproof. We let people grow with us for a whole season and they can return the product if they’d like to after that. And since we started, we have fewer than 1% returns.”
6:03 – “We’ve got growers in all 50 states. We have 40% of the people grow indoors, 60% outdoors. And across our whole growing network, we have the ability to grow over one and a half million plants per month. So it’s really spread out. It’s across backyards, patios, kitchens, living rooms. And yeah, it’s for everyone.”
6:52 – “The last 50 years there’s been a lot of technology advancements in farming. It starts with like farming equipment and machinery, and then it went to chemicals used, like fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and a lot of them with a lot of negative ramifications to the environment then genetic engineering. And so all of these different things has increased the productivity of farming to a dramatic level but at the same time, the farms have been pushed further and further away from population centers. And so the average piece of produce now travels 1500 to 2000 miles to get to the grocery store and on your plate and it’s 7 to 10 days old by the time you buy it. And half of the nutritional content is gone and half is wasted along the way. It’s kind of ridiculous. You know, we’re putting our lettuce on a supply chain that was designed for Doritos, for shelf stabilized things that store well and travel well. But fresh food should be fresh.”
Avoiding Using Single-use Plastic
*9:23 – (Ross) “Nowhere is the problem more apparent, I think, to the point that you just made then at a place like Trader Joe’s, where they sell their produce in sealed plastic bags, and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but my wife and I have experienced this a lot. Where you buy this produce and because it’s in a bag and it’s sealed, you can’t smell it, you can’t check it. There is a date on there. But we’ve had many occasions where we’ve popped open a bag that we just bought, whether it’s asparagus or some kind of leafy green, and it is either already bad or borderline bad. And that has happened numerous times, not just once. And it’s, of course, very frustrating, especially if you have guests coming over, you have a meal planned, you say ‘oh, I can’t use that.’ So that illustrates a number of problems. You mentioned obviously the freshness is one and just the quality of it from a consumer perspective. But then again, any time we’re injecting single-use plastic into an equation, that’s another bad thing, especially something like food, where we’re wrapping all of these things, like wrapping a banana in single-use plastic is the often used example of waste or things that are already wrapped by some natural form and re-wrapping them like an orange.”
16:13 – “Not a lot of people know, but conventionally it takes 20 to 21 gallons of water to just grow ahead of lettuce. With our system, it takes 0.8 gallons because it’s hydroponics and everything’s recirculating. But in the current food system, essentially there’s two lettuces being grown and transported for every one that’s consumed. So it’s essentially 40 gallons of water used versus 0.8 gallons. So when we think about, like the water situation that we’re in, especially in California, saving 40 gallons of water is a big deal. On one piece of produce. So we can reduce the water and then we also reduce the chemicals There’s zero chemicals used. We can reduce the labor. We can reduce the overall land footprint.”
22:12 – (Ross) “One of the most life changing things, living in Southern California myself, that my wife and I ever did was subscribing to a CSA box from a local farm. And then we get a box of fresh produce from a farm just up the road. No plastic involved. And of course, being in California, you can get such a thing year round. And that was a game changing experience when we first learned that you could do that and that it was even cheaper than Whole Foods, all of these things. But I’m very, very aware that not everybody lives in Southern California. For many people, a CSA box is something they can only get in the summer, if at all. Many people struggle to get high quality produce and certainly leafy greens and things like that in the winter months and for many months of the year.”
Grow 20% Of Your Food At Home
*23:51 – “My personal thought is that, let’s say 20% of your food should come from your home and then the next 50% should be like from CSAs and from farms within, let’s say a 100 to 200 mile radius. And then beyond that, then you have your grains and things like that that those could ship and those could come from a couple of thousand miles. And I think that it’s all tied together because when you start to grow your own food at home, you start to have this appreciation for what goes into it or what doesn’t go into it. You realize you didn’t add any chemicals, right? Or you might have had a caterpillar and you have a decision. What do you do? Do you do nothing? Do you flick it off? Do you use pesticide? If you use pesticides, do you use organic or do you use something else more harsh? And you start to realize, a farmer is making that decision for you every single day. And what kind of farmer do you want to make that decision?…And you generally want that to come from your local farmers, right? You want to support your community and you want people like us to be growing the food and not necessarily like mega-corporations that have their interest in the bottom line is different.”
Getting Kids Involved In Growing
*26:29 – “I don’t even need to tell them, ‘Hey, let’s eat this thing that we grow,’ because they just go over there, pick it off, and they just start eating. And it’s remarkable that they’ll pull a head of romaine or just something else that you’d think that normally they’d want salad dressing or different things to make it taste better. They won’t eat a tomato at a restaurant, but they pull the cherry tomatoes right off the farm stand. And they just eat them like they’re candy. So it’s in seeing kids, and watching my kids, and also we have a program where we donate one to a school for every ten that we sell. So we’re in thousands of classrooms. And so I’ve seen lots of kids interacting. I would say every single kid has some affinity to growing. It doesn’t have to be through our system. It could be through raised beds or just like growing a potato in a jar. But that’s why, earlier I said it’s in our DNA – I believe it because I observe it.”
31:34 – “We’re still dealing with consumers in the end. And consumers are used to a certain convenience. So I think it’s upon all of us to make our products as easy to use as possible, as beautiful as they can be, as cost competitive with the alternative. And yeah, we have a lot of work to do, but it is very possible to reimagine how our consumption works and where we consume our products from.”
33:42 – “Even more than helping people grow their own food, I am helping to grow farmers. We’ve created over 100,000 farmers in the last couple of years. And I think we should all be farmers. And when you are a farmer, you have just a different attitude about the earth, you have a different attitude about resources. And I have so much respect for them. And I think the more that we can convert people to farmers, the more we become much more conscious consumers. And then we actually make a dent in all of these like high level problems like climate change that seem just so out of reach for us so we can make it tangible for us all to participate in the solution.”
36:17 – “I started young, so I didn’t know anything. And I also took risks. The beginner’s mindset allows you to see things in fresh perspectives, right? You’re an outsider. You’re not really locked into the current way of thinking. And from day one, I saw an opportunity and I questioned like, ‘Why is it done this way? Can it be done this other way?’ And maybe my ideas were naive, but I think early on, I had enough energy to go after the ideas and I had a relative amount of success and that really gave me confidence so that when I went to the next thing and went to the next industry, which I knew nothing about when I got in, that I could return to that beginner’s mindset. I could see what I saw and see inefficiencies and see things that didn’t make sense and have the confidence to know there is a path, just keep on going and that I’ll find a path.”
43:41 – “I think it’s a progression and I think it’s also, it might sound crazy, but like a return to who I am at a core. And I see it in my kids because I have a five and seven year old and they’re so pure, they’re so themselves, they’re their own identities, which I had nothing to do with. And when I look at them, I can go look at their picture when they were just born and I can see what I see now, I could see that in them. And I sometimes wonder: ‘where is the little boy in me?’ You know, who is that identity and you get to a certain age and you have teachers say stuff and your parents say stuff, right? Like you get focused on success in chemical engineering or all these different things and you go down this path. But I think all of these decisions have brought me back to more like who I am at the core. And that’s like I’m a very caring person. I want to help people and I want to help the environment. And when I started, I was like trading, I was using my skills to make money. And now money is the thing I probably care least about. I care about everything else more. So I think it’s just really gotten me back to my core self.”
48:53 – (Ross) “I like that you used the word ridicule because there’s that saying ‘virtue is its own reward,’ which I’m sure you’ve heard of. And I think there is this belief that when we embrace more virtuous things or more ethical ways of being, or when we go against the grain in society, that there will be a parade for us, that we’ll be celebrated. But the fact of the matter is, in many cases, the opposite is true because other people who are still stuck in that world, they say, ‘Hey, what the hell are you doing? Why are you wasting your time on something like this?’ And I was reading an article about Socrates, whom we now know as being one of the most famous and influential philosophers of all time. In his time he was ridiculed, ostracized, and ultimately murdered for just questioning things. That’s it. And instead of being met as some kind of hero or an enlightened being, it was quite the opposite. He was made fun of and actively hated and humiliated. And so it does take a lot of integrity and it takes a lot of courage, I think, as individuals to pursue something that we believe in. And I think a lot of the stories around entrepreneurship or social entrepreneurship in general tend to minimize those risks when one is experiencing them. Because from the outside they say, ‘Oh yeah, he took some risks, but then the company is successful,’ we just really downplay the risk part and then we focus on the rest of it, then it was good. But when you’re experiencing that risk, it’s no joke. When you put things on the line, it is no joke and it doesn’t feel like the outcome is certain when you’re in the middle of that.”
52:53 – “I wake up with gratitude. You know, I used to wake up with the 30 things on my to do list and just, like, distressed. And now I just wake up happy. I mean, there’s still the little things I need to do that pop up. But in the end, like I mentioned, we’ve created over 100,000 farmers, and we’ve given this joy. People just love growing their own food. I mean, they have so much satisfaction and pride in it. So I know that even though my day is stressful and has its ups and downs, that all of our customers are happy and I’ve just brought them joy. And that also helps make them appreciate the earth and the resources and everything else so much more. And that’s similar to raising my kids, it’s like I’m doing the best things that I could be doing. So it feels great. Whereas in the past, a lot of times it was, ‘I want to get to this milestone or this threshold.’ So it’s some accomplishment-based thing. And now it’s really just like spreading this joy.”
58:23 – “Parting piece of wisdom: start before you’re ready. And, you can grow your own food at home successfully. So give it a shot. You’ll love it.”