Alex Tyink, Founder of Fork Farms

Gut + Science Podcast | Eliminating the Ego and Focusing on the Mission

Alex Tyink is the President of Fork Farms, a company that believes anybody can be a farmer. They deliver this message by engaging deeply with their customers to help them build strong relationships with fresh food.

While the focus of their company is meaningful connections with customers, Alex is committed to helping his people feel the company mission.

In this episode Alex shares insights on getting team members to buy into the mission. It’s not easy, but he firmly believes the key to success is making sure everyone feels the impact of their own work.


Moved headquarters to TitletownTech in Green Bay Wisconsin. TitletownTech is a partnership between the Green Bay Packers and Microsoft. TitletownTech builds and funds early-stage high-growth businesses.


Launch of Flex Farm Generation 4. The Generation 4 Flex Farm is the latest and greatest innovation in indoor, vertical farming technology. Over 500 Flex Farm installations completed in 22 states and Canada.

Green Bay food pantry uses hydroponics to provide fresh produce

Green Bay food pantry uses hydroponics to provide fresh produce

GREEN BAY (WLUK) — A local pantry is using hydroponics to provide the freshest food possible for families in need.

The Presbyterian Food Pantry of Green Bay​ purchased a ForkFarms hydroponic system to grow fresh produce.

On Monday, it was providing pesticide-free and herbicide-free lettuce to the pantry guests.

Mary Ginnebaugh, president of Presbyterian Food Pantry of Green Bay says it’s important to have fresh produce available.

“This is super important because it’s so minimally handled, it’s extremely fresh, it’s very nutritious and our pantry’s really striving to provide some very nutritious food for the clients that come and in this community that we serve,” Ginnebaugh said.

Ginnebaugh encourages the community to support their local pantries that continue to provide food to those in need during this uncertain time. She says a simple way to show support is through ​Amazon Smile.​ By signing up, a 0.5% of the price of your eligible Amazon purchases goes to the charity of your choice.

The Presbyterian Food Pantry of Green Bay is a listed charity on Amazon Smile.

The pantry is open from 10 a.m. to noon, on the second and fourth Tuesday each month.

Each year the pantry serves between 7,000 to 8,000 people.

Originally Published by: FOX 11 News on April 27, 2020 | Article Link

Fork Farms in Insight on Business Publication

Green machine Fork Farms Continues to Grow in its Commitment to Social Change

Sometimes inspiration strikes so strongly, its pull becomes irresistible. Consider Alex Tyink. Soon after the founder of Fork Farms first encountered a rooftop farm, he became so captivated with the concept that he headed to the nearest Home Depot, procured a stack of two-by-fours and other materials, ambled into a sweltering New York City subway car and hauled the whole unwieldy affair to his apartment to begin work.

The first prototype Tyink created that summer of 2010 was at once humble and marvelous. He constructed the nascent design using woodcuts with a hand saw, garbage bags for waterproofing, and sheet plastic he cut with a knife, heated with a heat gun and hand-molded using wooden dowels he’d whittled into shape. That early creation whispered of what the Flex Farm eventually would become.

Tyink’s new fixation couldn’t have been a bigger departure for him. An entirely different passion, opera singing, and a performance contract first brought the Appleton native to NYC. A fateful encounter would soon change his course.

At an art gallery one day, Tyink met a sculptor — an aging hippie in his 50s or 60s — who was also running a rooftop farm. Most of what the man grew, he donated to food pantries and other organizations. The concept struck Tyink as a cool social model, and he began to volunteer with the man.

Unlike in Tyink’s hometown, poverty and homelessness exist in plain sight in New York.

“I grew up in Appleton, and there’s poverty here, but it’s really hidden. It’s not until you really dig in and you work in the space that you really understand it because it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind for most people,” Tyink says. “For me, that was a real wake-up call at that time in my life.”

That awareness dawned into another one for Tyink when the sculptor told him he could bring home anything he grew. That bag of mixed greens he’d cultivated proved life-changing for Tyink, who was still in college mode and subsisting on a diet that included a lot of pizza and other junk food.

As Tyink, an Appleton West High School alumni and graduate of Northwestern University, began to eat healthier, he noticed he also felt better. The experience uncovered some mental health issues he hadn’t realized he’d been battling and helped him through a tough time in a positive way.

“I didn’t realize what it was doing to me mentally and physically, but it was profound, I later realized. You are what you eat is a real thing,” he says.

Tyink’s personal experience proved so galvanizing, he wanted to share it with others. He obtained United Way funding in New York, and he and a group of friends set about building rooftop and indoor gardens for schools and food pantries.

Over the next couple of years, Tyink and his team built about 12 units using pallet racks and technology that was state of the art at the time. The programs he worked with, however, kept the systems at that scale and were unwilling to take them to the next level.

When Tyink asked the different leaders about their reticence, they cited cost, saying they couldn’t afford $4 to $8 per pound just to grow the food. Food pantries operating on tight budgets can feed more people with 80-cent boxes of macaroni and cheese, he says. “That’s the world we live in. We can’t afford $4 per pound for lettuce.”

As Tyink began to research more, he learned many indoor farms that had started in the past 20 years failed to stay in business. Using traditional technology requires growers to demand a niche price point that a limited number of people are willing to pay, he says.

In indoor agriculture, the two top cost drivers are labor and energy. Tyink turned his focus to energy first. He wanted to find a way to grow a head of lettuce with around half the amount of energy typically required.

Reaching his goal took five years and a lot of tinkering in the form of around 30 prototypes he built first in his New York apartment and later in his parents’ basement in the Fox Cities. Tyink was awarded his first patent in 2014 for a concept using reflective surfaces and a central light source. In doing so, he could drop the wattage of the bulb by 40 percent and get the same outcome. The yield didn’t increase, but the cost of growing dropped.

“It was a really simple idea, but I was the one who had it. It’s not rocket science, but it works,” he says.


After returning to the Fox Cities in 2012, Tyink was on the verge of moving to Madison and starting a small indoor farm. The same day he was planning to put an offer on a piece of property in Madison, he was offered a job at Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin running its community gardens program.

The twist of fate would alter his course and prove serendipitous. The role gave Tyink experience while also allowing him to continue working on his indoor farming project.

Part of what drew Tyink to Goodwill was the opportunity to learn from the roster of former executives who worked for the organization — people who “wanted to do good because they’ve already done well” as former Goodwill NCW CEO Bob Pedersen put it.

Tyink also met influential leaders on Goodwill NCW’s board, including Bassett Mechanical CEO Kim Bassett. She took an interest in Tyink’s project and committed to helping him build his first stainless steel prototype to see if it could be mass-produced. She also helped field-test his concept.

Eventually, Tyink was able to make lettuce for about $1 a pound. Commercially, that would cost between $1 and $2, factoring in additional costs such as delivery and packaging. A micro-farming approach would largely eliminate those extra costs and help take Tyink’s endeavor out of a niche space where growers would need to charge more. That proved to be a core differentiator, he says.

In 2015, Tyink met John Brogan, the CEO of the Bank of Kaukauna and a former patent litigator who would go on to become the co-founder of Fork Farms. Brogan helped Tyink button up his intellectual property and ensure it was protected. Tyink says he had originally wanted to keep it open source, but Brogan pushed to protect it to ensure the technology was used in a positive way.

“If you’re going to set a big goal, which we have done, then you have to be willing to fight through a lot of issues. It was clear Alex was the kind of person who was going to keep fighting,” Brogan says of choosing to partner with Tyink.

As he was building his business, Tyink also turned to his father, Steve Tyink, who worked as an executive for Miron Construction Co. Inc. at the time and now works in partnership development for Fork Farms.

Tyink stayed with Goodwill through 2016 and then went on to serve as director of programs and innovation at Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin. Throughout his time there, he continued to develop Fork Farms. He left Feeding America in April 2018 to devote his full attention to Fork Farms.

In 2016, Fork Farms became an operating entity when Tyink raised money from a small family and friends round of funding to construct the first mold-to-build system out of plastic and to assess scalability.

In 2017, the company settled into its first home in Menasha, launched its second-generation Flex Farm made of recyclable plastic and installed 30 systems. Tyink also completed the gBETA startup accelerator program. The following year, Fork Farms raised a capital seed round of $750,000, completed 95 more installations, won an Insight Innovation Award in the Planet category and moved to its Appleton location.

While chance led Tyink to settle in the Fox Cities instead of moving to Madison, the decision turned out well for him. At the time, he didn’t fully appreciate the bounty of the region’s supply chain. Tyink and his board set out with the vision of making Fork Farms a tech company, not just a hydroponic company. Thus, they chose to outsource every task outside of Fork Farms’ core competencies.

The company partnered with Hortonville-based Gardan to serve as its operations arm. The manufacturer manages Fork Farms’ inventory, supply chain, assembly, and shipping. The only parts of the Flex Farm system that don’t come from Wisconsin are the pump and LED lights. The rest comes from about a 100-mile radius of its Appleton headquarters.

“When you really run the numbers, I don’t think it’s actually that much more cost-effective to go overseas. We’re really blessed in Wisconsin to have all those resources,” Tyink says.


Fork Farms’ reach continues to grow. In 2019, it launched its third-generation Flex Farm and opened its global shipping capability. Last October, the company received a Wisconsin Innovation Award for product design. On the financial side, the company has seen 170 percent year-over-year topline revenue growth.

In talking to Tyink, however, it quickly becomes clear that accolades and financial performance aren’t what moves him. Yes, he wants to see Fork Farms make money and grow, but if you really want to see Tyink’s face light up, talk to him about the impact of his work on everyone from kids to those living in poverty and how the access to healthy food can improve lives.

That dedication to others is what drew Mike Weller, CEO of Mike Weller & Associates, to become a Fork Farms investor and board member. All Fork Farms investors have agreed to the company’s less financially aggressive and more socially-minded aims. Weller says Tyink focuses on helping and elevating others.

“Those, in my mind, are some attributes I think can go far in this marketplace and in life,” he says.

Tyink credits his success to his co-founders, among whom he counts his dad, his staff and his 29 shareholders. “There’s so many people who have gone above and beyond the normal call of duty to make this happen just because they believe,” he says.

That support has helped Fork Farms spread its impact far and wide. About three and a half years ago, Menasha Joint School    District, where around 57 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals, became the first of many districts to implement the Flex Farm systems. Today, the basement of Menasha’s Butte des Morts Elementary School houses 12 units, which staff members for food service provider Chartwells maintain.

“They set a model that other districts are following all over the country. That’s pretty cool — little old Menasha, Wisconsin,” Tyink says.

Sue Malesa, director of dining services for Chartwells in Menasha, says the district uses the systems as both a food production and teaching tool. Concerns about food safety and recalls played a part in the district wanting to look at other sources for greens, she says.

The team reaps around 50 to 60 pounds of greens each time it harvests three pods, and the district primarily serves the lettuce it grows at Butte des Morts and Menasha High School. While it’s difficult to scientifically track whether the fresh offerings are changing kids’ preferences, the anecdotal evidence shows they are. Malesa says the kids notice when the school needs to sub in lettuce from other vendors.

“We usually hear about that. That’s the telling part. They’re like, ‘Where’s the good lettuce?’” she says.

Jason Stellmacher, a science teacher at Appleton Central High School, has used the grow system as a food-producing and teaching tool in the school for the past two years. He also owns his own system, which he and his wife use to produce food for a community-supported agriculture program they run.

In school, Stellmacher says he uses the system to teach his students about topics such as resource conservation and water scarcity in the face of climate change. “We’re looking for more sustainable options to feed 10 billion people by 2050,” he says.

Fork Farms provides a free multidisciplinary curriculum for schools through First Educational Resources of Oshkosh. “I can’t count the number of applications this has taken on (in schools),” Tyink says.

Food pantries such as St. Joseph Food Program use the system to combat food insecurity. The nonprofit uses its eight units to provide freshly grown greens to its clients.

From health care to the commercial sector, organizations are embracing the Flex Farm. Marshfield Clinic bought 17 units and recently committed to purchasing 15 more. It uses them to grow and distribute fresh food to different populations, including senior citizens, with the aim of creating better health outcomes.

“These people are getting fresh food and they’ve never had it before, so they’re so excited. (The Marshfield Clinic team) said, ‘Steve, we’re giving every senior a bag of lettuce, and it’s like we’re giving them gold,’” says Steve Tyink.

On the commercial front, Fork Farms supplies grow systems to companies including Chartwells and Taher Food Service. The company also offers an industrial version of its product and has done one major installation, with others in the works.

The company plans to grow its presence and invest in research and development. “We would like to be the Google of agtech, and we’d love to transform the community by putting that right here,” Brogan says.

Along the way, Tyink says he hopes they can inspire other companies as well. “We want to try to represent what we think the future of business could be, not just our mission, but I feel like the United States in particular needs more people who think like we do and aren’t so focused on shareholder return and are focused on creating value in society.”


Fork Farms offers two versions of its Flex Farm. Its Flex Farm 144 stands 4 feet tall, holds 144 plants and can grow more than 150 pounds of leafy greens per year, while its Flex Farm 288 holds 288 plants, stands 6 feet tall and can produce more than 300 pounds of greens per year. The systems require about four hours per month of maintenance and cost about $17 per month in electricity to operate.

To help make its systems affordable and accessible to as many organizations as possible, Fork Farms ships its units for free. It also helps connect nonprofits to funding opportunities and offers a philanthropy tool kit.

The Fork Farms team at the Wisconsin Innovation Awards 2019

Fork Farms LLC Announced as Winner of the Wisconsin Innovation Award


Media Contact:
Ashley Ponschok – Operations, Fork Farms
Email: [email protected]
Phone: 920.562.5878

MADISON, WI – During the Wisconsin Innovation Awards ceremony, Fork Farms LLC received the Wisconsin Innovation Award for product design. The event was held at the Wisconsin Union Theater, located on the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus on October 9, 2019.

Of the thirty-one companies and nonprofit organizations selected as finalists for the 2019 Wisconsin Innovation Awards, Fork Farms LLC was the sole representative of Northeast Wisconsin. Over 400 businesses, products, and services from around the state were nominated. The finalists were selected by a panel of twenty-one statewide industry experts.

Fork Farms LLC is an innovative agriculture technology company specializing in indoor hydroponics. Flex Farms, the indoor hydroponic systems developed by Fork Farms, are safe, simple, and versatile. They produce leafy vegetables and herbs for a fraction of the price when compared to alternative traditional and hydroponic growing methods. Driven by their mission to unleash the power of food production for happier, healthier people, Fork Farms LLC partners with schools, food service companies, nonprofits, commercial growers, and more across the United States.

President of Fork Farms Alex Tyink is thrilled that the company has been recognized as one of Wisconsin’s innovative industry leaders.

“I knew we were onto something when we discovered the Flex Farm was more resource-efficient and cost-effective than any other indoor farming system on our radar,” said Tyink. “Being able to help change the lives of so many through relationships with all of our wonderful partners is extremely rewarding.”

The Fork Farms team hopes being recognized as a 2019 Wisconsin Innovation Award winner creates excitement for growing a fresher future throughout Wisconsin and beyond. Every person, business, or organization that joins the Fork Farms community brings us one step closer to repairing our broken food system and growing a fresher future for all. Anyone interested in supporting or partnering with Fork Farms is encouraged to get in touch today.

Fork Farms LLC is an agricultural technology company based in Appleton, Wisconsin. Our flagship product the Flex Farm is a highly efficient indoor hydroponic growing system that puts the power to grow fresh, affordable produce into the hands of our partners all across the nation. Fork Farms has been involved in hundreds of indoor farm installations throughout the United States with partnering schools, nonprofit organizations, families, corporate cafeterias and more. We believe in the power of good food, and we have made it our mission to unleash the power of food production for happier, healthier people.

The Wisconsin Innovation Awards (WIA) connects and showcases innovators throughout the state of Wisconsin, across industries and organizations of all shapes and sizes. By producing and providing educational media content, organizing a statewide network of experts willing to mentor and support each other, and hosting events that highlight groundbreaking work, WIA is building a lasting legacy of instruction inspired by Wisconsin’s thinkers, makers, creators, and designers. WIA fosters innovation in this state and helps shine a light on companies throughout the state that have transformational ideas. For more information on the Wisconsin Innovation Awards, please contact Molly Walsh at 608.698.5890 or [email protected]


Institutional Dining: Private Schools

By Nancy Weingartner Monroe with Foodservice News

When Taher, a food service management company with the lion’s share of private schools’ lunch programs in the Twin Cities, wanted to introduce a new product from Ferndale Farms to students at The Blake School in Minneapolis, they didn’t bus the students to the farm, they brought the turkey grower to meet them where they learned.

“We had the farmer come to school and talk about how they feed, raise and process and how they get those products to market,” says Mark Brodersen, vice president of operations for Taher, a local company with 2,600 employees in 19 states.

Because farmers aren’t used to visiting schools, Taher designed a trading card with his picture and stats, similar to a baseball card, as an ice breaker for students. “And we had kids who wanted him to sign them,” Brodersen says. “Young people today want to know where their food comes from and they like the local angle.”

In case you’ve been out of school for more years than you were in, school lunches have evolved considerably—no more Jello-O and mysterious meat hiding in gravy. For instance, high school students at St. Paul Academy don’t have trays. Like a buffet at a wedding, they take their plate through the line and then go back for seconds if they so desire, says Mark Dickinson, director of operations and security at St. Paul Academy and Summit School.

There’s a self-service soft-serve ice cream station, but Dickinson was quick to defend the food program by saying the cups are small and it’s not available every day.

Like the turkeys from Ferndale Farms, the food being prepared in private schools is fresh, prepared onsite from scratch and free of dyes and preservatives. “You can pronounce all the ingredients that go into it,” Brodersen says.
For Nicolle Thomas, the foodservice director from Taher at The Blake School in Hopkins, the difference in her years in public schools and private is worlds apart. For one thing, she says, Blake is not on the National School Lunch Program, which gives them more flexibility and “higher student satisfaction.” “We can use salt, heavy cream and butter,” she says, adding “not that those are the core of our recipes.” With just a little higher budget than public schools have, Blake students get organic fruits and vegetables when available and shellfish (no, not lobster, shrimp).

Public schools have also made great strides in bringing kids healthier lunches.

While Taher uses broadline distributors for staples and mainlines, they supplement with meat and produce from local farmers. And they’re also getting the schools into the act of growing their own food with the addition of a Flex Farm or hydroponic grower from Fork Farms in Appleton, Wisconsin. The vertical units grow leafy vegetables and herbs and are both a source of food and education. When they introduced it at Blake, students planted the seeds in the individual pods and then harvested the produce when it was ready. “Kids can see it, touch it and taste it a couple weeks down the road,” Thomas says.

And in an age of culinary transparency, “they’ll know where the produce in the salad bar came from,” Brodersen says.

All three private schools I contacted for this story referred me to Brodersen. It’s clear why. When the schools outsourced their cafeteria, they rightfully trusted Taher to handle everything.

For many of the schools, it’s a cashless operation at least from the students’ vantage point. School lunches are paid with their tuition. Others are retail operations where around 80 to 85 percent of the students have computerized meal tickets with a declining balance. “And we still take good old cash,” he says. In some cases, students with the meal tickets will want an extra item and will use their own cash to purchase it.

For its clients (Taher manages foodservice operations for some public schools, corporate dining rooms, and the FBI, as well), staff acts as the foodservice director. Each campus has a chef onsite and Taher hires the staff, trains them and develops the menus and recipes. “We are a chef-based company,” Brodersen says. “We’re a bunch of foodies.”

Thanks to social media and cooking shows, kids’ palates today are more sophisticated and kids are more willing to try foods other than the safe harbors every cafeteria needs to have for picky eaters. To encourage the kids to try new items, kitchen staff will sample new recipes to get buy-in. At one time they tried to come up with compelling and cute names for the items but decided it was often more confusing than helpful. For instance, the kid-favorite macaroni and cheese won’t be the popular boxed variety that’s an orange color not found in nature. Because their homemade version is closer to tan, staff sampled it with students to explain why it looked different and also provided a few modifiers to let students know it was homemade.

“Children take their first bite with their eyes, so how it looks is equally important to what it’s called,” Brodersen says.

At Blake, the students are also privy to ethnic foods, that the chefs and registered dietitians, like Thomas, developed after attending international trips with Taher’s Chef Council.

After one group’s trip to Japan, the kids were served “barbecued eel on a cute little skewer.” “We served 200” samples, Thomas says.

Founder and CEO Bruce Taher also likes to show up at schools with his five-foot-wide Paella pan and demonstrate how to make the crusty Spanish rice and seafood dish.

Pizza will always be popular—“If you served it every day, kids would eat it,” Thomas says—but fresh fruit and vegetables are receiving a number of likes.

Private school students don’t work in the foodservice program, but the Taher staff does provide teaching moments, such as with the hydroponic gardens and cooking demos. At the K-5th grade campus at St. Paul Academy, Taher staff weighed the garbage after every meal to make students aware of how much food was thrown away, Dickinson says. They also do composting.

Staffing has become more difficult over the years, Brodersen says, since the mid-day hours aren’t always attractive for part-time work. Each school has dedicated staff, but for events such as homecoming and graduation, they often borrow from other campuses.

But even with all the changes school cafeterias have seen, there are more changes coming.

St. Paul Academy is a closed campus, so students aren’t allowed to go off campus for lunch. And while we had heard of cases where high school students were getting busted for having third-party delivery systems bring them food from their favorite restaurants for lunch, neither Brodersen or Dickinson were aware of that being the case in their school programs.

But one thing Taher is looking to launch soon is an app that uploads the weekly menus and nutritional information, including food sensitivities. A natural extension of that app, Brodersen says, is to include a function where students can order their lunches ahead of time and not have to stand in a cafeteria line. They are still working on how it can it be done so that it’s not a disruption, or too costly. Although with technology, “you have to have some costs attached to it,” he says. “We have to be able to figure out a way to absorb some of those tech costs.”

School may still be heavy into reading, but the real world is moving to apps, not a paper menu sent home in a backpack.

The Menasha Model

The Menasha Model: Innovative Hydroponics and One Million Meals

By: Alex Tyink and Gil Shaw, Fork Farms

When your school district serves over one million meals per year, your foodservice program impacts thousands of lives daily. So, when change happens, students, staff, parents, school board members, and your community must all see the benefits of that change. In Menasha, Wisconsin’s Menasha Joint School District, the food service program delivered not just change, but paradigm-shifting innovation.

The Origins of Cupola Crops

Sue Malesa has been a public school Food Service Director for over 25 years. She currently serves as Food Service Director for the Menasha Joint School District, under its contract with Chartwells. Sue started implementing farm to school initiatives long before they became popular and understands what it takes to incrementally improve a program. In January 2018, Sue’s Business Services Manager, Brian Adesso, came to her with an “outside-of-the-box” idea – what if the district grew all its own fresh lettuce and herbs? Not an easy task, especially in the dark Wisconsin winters. Buying produce from a local farmer or picking a few tomatoes out of the school garden was one thing. Developing and operating a program to make the district self-sufficient in leafy greens production was quite another. But Brian had a plan. For several years, Brian had been researching how to provide the freshest produce possible to students and staff. School gardens and locally grown produce were a start; however, both were subject to weather, seasonality, and forces often beyond the district’s control. Brian concluded that an indoor hydroponic farm was the best and most reliable solution. But hydroponics for the sake of hydroponics wasn’t the right path. The solution had to fit the district in terms of capital outlay, return on investment, space requirements, and overall efficiency. After exploring options offered all over the country, the solution turned out to be just a few miles down the road.

Eric Glad, a science teacher at Menasha High School, unaware of Brian’s aspirations, saw a Facebook post about Fork Farms and thought the Flex Farm might be a good teaching tool for his classroom. He scheduled a tour with the Fork Farms team at their indoor farm facility, located only a few miles from Menasha High School. His enthusiasm about the upcoming tour began to intrigue others in the district office and the attendee number swelled to over a dozen education professionals – including Brian Adesso. It was clear to Brian and his team that they found what they were looking for. Cost, size, efficiency, ease of use, production capacity, and scalability – the Flex Farm checked all their boxes. But first, he had to convince Sue Malesa. Sue and her food service team scheduled their own tour of the indoor farm facility. She arrived skeptical but left convinced it was a good idea and, more importantly, capable of being implemented. However, there was one final partner that needed to be brought on board.

Chartwells has over 500 K-12 facilities under management across the U.S. and is the foodservice contractor at Menasha Joint School District. After several months of collaborative effort, including exhaustive review of food safety concerns, Chartwells became a quick convert to the project’s mission. Chartwells’ staff would run the Flex Farm and the district would benefit from the farm-fresh, healthy greens being served. A location was found for the first four Flex Farms inside of a cupola (a dome-like structure) at the top of Menasha High School that housed an empty classroom. It could easily accommodate these four systems with plenty of room for expansion. Like any real farm, this one needed a name. In March 2018, Cupola Crops was born.

Why Hydroponics?

In the U.S., leaf lettuce is highly susceptible to food safety, weather, and transportation disruptions. California and Arizona grow up to 99% of our lettuce, with production concentrated in just a few select regions. Over the last five years, unseasonably cold weather, drought, flooding, and pathogen outbreaks have caused nationwide recalls of lettuce products. Not only do emerging “new normal” environmental factors pose challenges to leafy green production, even the very act of transporting the product can reduce its nutritional value. On top of that, the overall carbon footprints of large-scale agriculture and food distribution have enormous impacts that go unmeasured or unaccounted for in the true cost of the produce we feed our children. Local, indoor hydroponic food production provides a cost-effective solution to these issues.

Application of hydroponics is simple. pH balanced water, combined with the right amount of nutrients and the correct amount and type of light, results in consistent yields of highly nutritious leafy greens and other produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. The design of any hydroponic system must meet one’s space requirements, budgetary considerations, and labor availability. Controlled Environment Agriculture is, simply put, growing food in space capable of being heated and cooled. It’s up to 95% more water-efficient than growing in soil. Placing a hydroponic system close to the ultimate consumer eliminates large-scale transportation, loss of nutrient value, and can ultimately empower people and communities to become self-sufficient in food production. Further, it connects us to where our food comes from, builds engagement, and establishes healthy habits. The Flex Farm takes this approach one step further by optimizing energy and labor efficiency, making it one of the easiest and most cost-effective systems to operate on the planet.

Scaling Up Cupola Crops

Set against this backdrop, Cupola Crops began operating and as luck would have it, a national recall of romaine and other lettuce coincided with Cupola Crops’ first harvest. Once students found out that “their lettuce” from the upstairs farm was on the lunch menu, it began to quickly disappear from the cafeteria. Harvests continued through the end of the school year into early June.

Cupola Crops lettuce was served at the annual back-to-school staff picnic over the summer and autumn 2018 saw continued consistent harvests from the four systems. However, these systems only met about 25% of the total leafy greens needed for district consumption. The decision was made to go all-in on a large-scale farm consisting of 13 Flex Farms plus three classroom systems. Fork Farms designed and installed the production farm, which included a unified-tank reservoir system. This allows all the systems to be run off one large supply reservoir, further simplifying production and minimizing labor. As of August 15, 2019, plants are growing and, coupled with the three classroom systems, the Menasha Joint School District is on its way to becoming self-sufficient with its own leafy green production. District teachers using the classroom systems have started incorporating the Flex Farm’s multidisciplinary, K-12 and state standards-aligned curriculum, prepared by FIRST Educational Resources, into their lessons.

The impact of the Menasha Model is no longer just local. The project has caught the attention of school districts across the country. National foodservice companies, such as Taher and Aviands, are partnering for placement in foodservice settings. Chartwells continues to support Cupola Crops and anticipates rolling out additional placement of Flex Farms in many of the schools that they serve.

The Fork Farms mission is to grow Happier, Healthier People and with partners like Menasha Joint School District, they are doing just that. The Menasha Model provides an easy to follow blueprint for districts on a micro and macro scale. The Flex Farm provides a scalable solution that creates budget-saving efficiencies in space, cost, and labor while serving as a valuable teaching tool. As implementation continues at Menasha, Brian Adesso is pleased with what he has seen. “Fork Farms has given the district the ability to meet our goal to have higher quality products that are fresher and grown locally, all without increasing costs,” he says.

Engagement of students, staff, and the community guarantees success for any food project. Paying attention to details and the larger vision are critical to ensuring the right fit, the right product, and the ultimate goal of feeding healthy, good food to our children. The Menasha Model has paved the way for others to fulfill the promise of growing happier, healthier people and with minimal impact to our planet.

Author Bios

Gil Shaw is a self-proclaimed recovering attorney with over three decades of management, partnership development, and hydroponics experience. Gil farmed in the Arizona Highlands for over 30 years, primarily to keep his sanity while practicing law. In 2014, Gil retired and moved to Wisconsin to do something completely different. He managed a large hydroponic production operation in Appleton, Wisconsin, working with veterans in a job training program. Joining Fork Farms in 2017, he first managed the commercial farm side of the business until he moved to a full-time partnership development role. Gil lives in Appleton with his two retired ranch dogs.

Alex Tyink is co-founder of Fork Farms and inventor of its farming technology and methods. He is a former opera singer with 10 years of leadership experience in the social service sector and works to inspire vast food systems change across communities. Alex has served as program director at Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin and as director of innovation and programs for Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin. In 2018, he was a Fox Cities Future 15 winner and featured as Fox Cities Magazine’s ‘Big Idea.’ Alex currently lives in Appleton, Wisconsin with his wife, son, and their dog Maya.

Lawrence University

From bees to goats to Flex Farm, LU students lead sustainability efforts

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications with Lawrence University

It’s been the summer of sustainability on the Lawrence University campus, with students front and center in making change happen.

The goats that have taken up temporary residence in the SLUG garden are just one piece of a much bigger puzzle.

So is the ongoing bee advocacy work that has resulted in Lawrence being certified by the Bee Campus USA program, only the second Wisconsin campus to earn that designation.

Now comes the installation of Lawrence’s first Flex Farm, a hydroponic growing system set up last week by Fork Farms in Andrew Commons. The first planting in the indoor growing container — basil and leaf lettuce — is taking place this week.

The three projects are the very visible fruits of ongoing efforts to make Lawrence a more environmentally friendly campus, efforts that gained momentum when the Sustainable Lawrence initiative was launched two years ago, funded by a grant to transform the campus into a living laboratory of sustainability.

Many of the efforts are student-driven, supported by a Student Sustainability Fund that allows students access to project-based grants, overseen by a Sustainability Steering Committee.

“The goal of Lawrence’s sustainability initiative is to make students, staff, and faculty aware of places where they can make more sustainable decisions and then challenge them to then make those decisions in their everyday lives,” said Project Specialist/Sustainability Coordinator Kelsey McCormick, co-chair of the sustainability committee. “It’s encouraging to see students applying their knowledge and challenging Lawrence to rethink its own processes and decisions.”

Among those students are Valeria Nunez ’22 and Marion Hermitanio ’21, who secured funding through a sustainability grant to bring the Flex Farm to campus.

Students will operate the year-round Flex Farm, with an assist from Bon Appetit, the company that manages the commons. It’s expected that 50 percent of the foods grown will be served to students and the other half will be donated to a local food pantry. The hydroponic system will produce about 25 pounds of greens in each 23-day cycle.

Nunez and Hermitanio, along with members of the Bon Appetit staff, are getting the initial training on the Flex Farm. When fall term arrives, Nunez and Hermitanio will organize a student volunteer program, in conjunction with the school’s Committee on Community Service and Engagement (CCSE), to run the Flex Farm and coordinate the community outreach.

“We both believe that any changes you can make to be more eco-friendly can make a huge difference,” Nunez said of her partnership on the project with Hermitanio.

“We were talking a lot about hunger and how not everyone gets access to fresh, nutritious foods. We saw the Flex Farm as an opportunity to address the food crisis locally by providing these nutritious foods to people in the Appleton area who need it.”

‘It’s a learning curve’
Lawrence students have their fingerprints on all sorts of other sustainability projects this summer.

Floreal Crubaugh ’20 tapped into the Student Sustainability Fund and sought permission from the City of Appleton to bring in goats to help control an overgrowth of weeds in the SLUG garden.

“It’s a learning curve for all of us,” Crubaugh said of using the goats to control the weeds on the east end of the garden. “I’m hoping it’s something we can repeat. Hopefully it won’t get to this point again where it’s so unmanageable. Hopefully, with a combination of just weed mitigation and having this mowed down by goats once in a while we can control it. My end goal is to turn it into a wildflower pollination garden and not just a weed bed.”

Elsewhere in SLUG this summer, Phoebe Eisenbeis ’21 is working on a volunteer program that brings area children into the garden to learn about sustainable agriculture. Amos Egleston ’20 is working with a contractor to fix the drip irrigation system, and Cas Burr ’20 is heading a project to replace the hoop house.

On the bee front, Allegra Taylor ’20 and Claire Zimmerman ’20 are working with biology professor Israel Del Toro on the Appleton Pollinator Project, part of the bee advocacy efforts that recently resulted in Lawrence earning a Bee Campus USA designation from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

And Jessica Robyns ’20 is taking the lead on a pollinator garden and grounds survey at Lawrence’s Bjorklunden property in Door County.

Students come to these projects with deep passions, McCormick said. The Student Sustainability Fund allows them opportunities to put those passions into action.

“Student projects play an important role in helping Lawrence achieve its sustainability goals,” McCormick said. “These projects are often based on the strong interests or research questions from students, and therefore result in deep exploration of a particular topic.”

Sustainability grants average about $2,500 per project, McCormick said. A faculty or staff advisor is assigned to each project to provide oversight, and all grant requests must go through the Sustainability Steering Committee.

“All sustainability grant recipients are also required to complete a final reflection for their project, to inform the Lawrence community what they have learned from the project and what the lasting effects to campus will be,” McCormick said.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: [email protected]


Generation 3 launches, opening global shipping capability. Over 200 Flex Farm installations completed across 10 states. Gardan Inc. formalized as a fulfillment partner. FIRST Educational Resources develops custom K-12 curriculum. Taher Inc., a food service company based in Minneapolis, MN, begins providing Flex Farms to its clients. Fork Farms enters into multiple product distributor agreements.