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April 25, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Growing vegetables and other crops could get easier

Knoxville area start-up Eden Concepts LLC is initially focused on simplifying the process of germinating seeds and then transplanting the plants by hand.

A familiar face in the greater Knoxville entrepreneurial ecosystem is Walter Cromer, Chief Idea Officer and Founder of Eden Concepts LLC.

Launched in January 2018, the start-up is focused on improving the way farmers grow vegetables, flowers, and specialty crops with an initial focus on tomatoes. Eden Concepts’ patent-pending precision planting system prepares and plants germinated seeds. It replaces the current process of growing and transplanting seedlings, saving time and energy for farmers.

We first met the University of Georgia (UGA) graduate in mid-2018 when he participated in the “AgLaunch Bootcamp” co-hosted by the Memphis-based AgLaunch organization and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. Nearly five years later, Cromer and his team are still systematically moving forward with the technology to add efficiency and reduce costs.

For the Georgia native, agriculture is second nature although he digressed for nearly three decades after moving to Knoxville. Cromer began his career as an Agricultural Research Engineer focused on instrumentation, controls, computer modeling, and analysis with UGA’s Coastal Plain Experiment Station (CPES) in Tifton. It is one of the largest agricultural research stations in the U.S.

An assignment to network personal computers to a mainframe system led to a transition into information technology (IT) and a move to Knoxville in 1989. He led the development of IT teams for two engineering-led, entrepreneurial companies – Computational Systems and CTI Molecular Imaging – before joining Team Health in 2005 as Vice President for IT Project Management. At Team Health, he developed the first IT project management office and headed that department for 11 years.

Today, from his office in Sam and Carol Jean Weaver’s more than 200-year-old farmhouse named Sizzle TechStart in the Roane Regional Industrial Park, Cromer is working toward a goal of selling the first systems by the end of 2025.

“That’s with the right funding,” he says, explaining, “We are still in the lab.”

Noting that by 2050, the world’s population is estimated to reach 10 billion, Cromer says, “That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and it has to be done with increasing constraints on land, water, and energy. New technology and methods are required to feed the world.”

He explains that Eden Concepts’ two-part system gets rid of the process of growing plants in greenhouses before transplanting them into the soil. The transplanting process is extremely labor intensive and uses fossil fuels on the farm. In the start-up’s system, a machine in the barn germinates the seeds. Once that occurs, and depending on the size of the farm, there will either be a manual device that small-scale farmers will use or an electric autonomous vehicle for larger farms to plant the germinated seeds directly into the soil.

“It’s a radical change from how they (farmers) do things today,” Cromer adds. “In agriculture, you have to prove it works.”

Thanks to Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation and a $100,000 match from Launch Tennessee, he is making progress. Both SBIRs are focused on the planting process, not on germinating the seeds.

Eden Concepts has land at Sizzle TechStart for field testing for its initial focus on tomatoes. Cromer has also lined up a farmer in Grainger County, well-known for its tomato growers, as well as his former UGA CPES and AgriCenter in Memphis as additional test sites.

“We need early adopters to try it,” he says.

Noting that the best technology on the market today requires six people and two tractors to do the transplanting, Cromer’s goal is to develop a non-labor intensive system that can service a 10-acre field in a single day with fewer people and the absence of so much damage to the environment that comes from fuel usage and heavy equipment.

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