Glendale couple look to sow the seeds of change in urban farming
Brian and Heather Szymura are proof that you never know when a hobby might turn into a business. About 12 years ago, they began urban farming—partly to help alleviate Brian’s ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that affects the spine, by growing food for medicine. The new “hobby” was guided by Heather, who took a naturopathic program in botanical medicine, and Brian’s experience as a master grower.
The side benefit? Fostering a lifestyle that’s helped Brian lose about half his body weight in the past five years.
In May 2015, the couple’s side interest in harvesting their own food grew into something much bigger when they purchased a Freight Farms hydroponic farm-in-a-box: a 40-foot insulated shipping container (formerly used to transport meat) retrofitted with air conditioning, LED lights, and 7-foot vertical growing towers.
Today, their Glendale-based entrepreneurial backyard venture, Twisted Infusions, produces greens, vegetables and edible flowers that are incorporated into menus by top-name chefs around the Valley.
“We thought it would be more of a part-time situation, but it didn’t turn out that way,” Heather says. “It actually needed more than just 20 hours a week of work. We also had to answer the question, ‘What do you do with all this lettuce?’”
Although the Szymuras had initial interest from distributors, they didn’t want to focus on a single type of crop.
“We looked at it from a perspective of what we wanted to plant and who we wanted to sell to, and that’s where partnering with chefs really came in,” Heather says. “The chefs who care about farm-to-table are looking for something that’s high quality and knowing exactly where it’s sourced.”
By maintaining a constant temperature of 63 degrees year-round in an enclosed space, the farm eliminates issues with Arizona’s weather and airborne dust, as well as insects. Clean water, of course, is a key component in hydroponics.
“Even with the equivalent of nearly two acres, we only use 15 gallons of water a day, so it’s not cost-effective to put in a $15,000 system,” Brian says. “Using Glendale Water ‘n Ice lets us support a local business and gives us peace of mind knowing they test their water on a weekly basis. The trick to getting help with carrying the 5-gallon jugs is to tell our friends we’re going to get ice cream!”
The farm’s LED lights decrease energy use and help keep the environment cooler during the hotter months.
“In container farming, every environment is different,” Brian says. “We’re the first in Arizona, but most of these farms are on the East Coast or in Colorado at high elevation. They’re constantly dealing with freezing temperatures and we’re the exact opposite.”
Early on, the farm proved to be a perfect environment for lettuce and kale. But the couple experimented with a wide range of items, including edible flowers, red-veined sorrel, bok choy, a Japanese herb called shiso, as well as beets and celery, which are used for its leaves. Outdoor hydroponics towers and small earth gardens provide additional options for vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers that can’t be grown in the container.
Matthew Eck at the Mission Kierland, Cory Oppold at Atlas Bistro, and Christopher Brugman at Hearth ’61 are among the chefs using Twisted Infusions’ unique offerings.
“I discovered them on Instagram and reached out to see what they had to offer,” says Eck, a sous chef at the Mission, who uses the farm’s greens and produce at the restaurant, and at pop-up and private dinners. “They were doing something original and cool, providing chefs and local foodies with things you can’t usually get here in the desert or anywhere else. For example, I love their wasabi arugula, glacier lettuce, and an edible flower called buzz button that makes your tongue tingle like it’s being tased. It’s fun to mess with!”
Creating those types of unique gastronomic experiences is equally rewarding for the Szymuras.
“It’s great when a chef asks me to grow something specific or new for them for an event or special menu item,” Heather says. “They care about where their food comes from and how they present it. It’s that kind of a partnership and relationship we’re looking for.”
Story by Jake Poinier
Photography by Mark Lipczynski