bemidji flex farm

Bemidji Boys and Girls Club will Reap Year-Round Harvest

Originally Published in The Bemidji Pioneer

Written By: Hannah Olson

BEMIDJI — Despite the unpredictable nature of Bemidji’s weather, children over at the Boys and Girls Club of the Bemidji Area will soon be able to grow leafy greens and other fresh veggies all year long.

The club installed their new “Flex Farm” — a hydroponic indoor growing system — purchased from the Wisconsin-based company, Fork Farms, via a Minnesota Department of Agriculture grant.

The device will allow the organization to expand its current gardening programming into something that can be done year-round.

The excitement in the room during the delivery of the Flex Farm was palpable — Bemidji Boys and Girls Club director Andrea Kent exclaimed a few times, “It’s Fork Farm Day! It’s fork Farm Day!” — but perhaps in no one more than Deb Dilley.

Dilley — a recently retired SNAP Education Health and Nutrition Programs educator in Bemidji for the University of Minnesota Extension — heads up the gardening program for the club.

She knows firsthand the power of showing children how fresh food goes from a tiny seed to their plates.

‘Kids eat what they grow’

Dilley has been working with the existing gardening program at the local Boys and Girls Club since 2006 and is excited to implement the new hydroponic unit.

“Deb is really going to be running with this program,” Kent said. “She’s going to be working with the kids to educate and plant the seeds. (Fork Farms) actually developed curriculum and activities just for Boys and Girls Clubs.”

Dilley has hopes of installing even more gardening apparatuses in the future — there is a grant application in the works for more systems — so one can house romaine, one strawberries, and one marigolds, all at the same time.

The benefits of the hydroponic growing system are multifaceted, as it provides an educational experience for children, and serves as a food and revenue source.

According to Dilley, children who are exposed to the food growing process may be more likely to incorporate fresh foods into their diet. Those who ordinarily may not look twice at a piece of broccoli are suddenly excited to dig in once they’ve harvested it themselves, she explained.

“In my experience, nine times out of ten, kids will eat what they grow,” she said. “The harvesting of everything is by far their favorite part.”

The club is no stranger to growing its own food — for more than 10 years, the club has partnered with the University of Minnesota Extension to develop a garden program. The club garden teaches members lifelong gardening skills by caring for the garden, they also learn about good nutrition when they harvest and prepare fresh produce from the garden.

In 2017, the garden grew by 400 square feet with the addition of 15 new raised beds. Through these expansions the growing space nearly doubled, resulting in a higher yield harvested.

The garden not only produces over 1,000 pounds of produce per season, but it also teaches nutrition and healthy eating, entrepreneurial skills, leadership skills and cultural traditions, Dilley explained.

Before the installation of the Flex Farm, produce from the Boys and Girls Club gardens was used to feed club members, and then sold by club members to families at the “farmers markets” hosted by the club during the warmer months. The club also partnered with ISD 31, selling produce to the district to use in school lunches.

This partnership will now continue on a larger and more consistent scale.

“Bemidji Area Schools has supported the Boys and Girls club through produce purchases for several years and look forward to the greens that will be available this spring and summer,” Bemidji Area Schools Food and Nutrition Services Coordinator Tammie Colley, said in an email to the Pioneer.

“We have several farmers markets during the summer where the kids will sell the produce. A lot of it is served here. Then a lot of it goes to the school lunches — the school district purchases a lot of it too,” Dilley explained.

How the Flex Farm works

The Flex Farm solves a lot of gardening woes — it’s functional all year long. No dirt involved. Best of all, no weeding.

The hydroponic — the soil-free cultivation of crops in controlled environments — system was developed by the Green Bay, Wis., based company, Fork Farms.

Seeds or seedlings planted in holes in what they call “rockwall,” a segmented planting substance made from volcanic ash. The individual seedlings in their volcanic planting material are then stuck in holes in the gardening system. Water is pumped through the machine to keep the roots wet, and plants are treated to rays from a grow light for up to 16 hours a day.

According to the Fork Farm website, one Flex Farm device can grow more than 25 pounds of food every 28-day growth cycle, which adds up to 395 pounds of fresh food annually or 3,400 plants a year. One Flex Farm unit costs $4,695.

Steve Tyink — father of the Fork Farms inventor, Alex Tyink — drove from Wisconsin to Bemidji to install the device, something he said he doesn’t do for just any customer.

The family has a special place in their hearts for Boys and Girls Clubs, he explained and has installed numerous Flex Farms in clubs throughout Wisconsin. Bemidji’s club was the first Boys and Girls Club in the state of Minnesota to have such a hydroponic system installed.

“To hyper-localize food production like you all are doing is a monumental achievement for the community,” Tyink told club staff during the installation.

Original Article Link

Lettuce 0064

How rural Wisconsin is embedding hyperlocal food production in community spaces

Authors: Alex Tyink and Megan Pirelli

The problem of food insecurity is deeply connected to our nation’s spatial patterns of economic inequity. Widening geographic divergence—in which smaller and more rural areas, on the whole, face higher poverty rates, greater unemployment, and limited access to economic opportunity compared to denser metropolitan areas—alongside steep declines in grocery stores serving rural areas in recent years have contributed to a devastating paradox: Despite growing most of our nation’s food, rural communities are disproportionately likely to be food insecure.

This paradox produces severe consequences for rural residents, including higher rates of hunger, diminished health outcomes, and even lower grades and educational achievement. These consequences—on top of limited access to public health services and hospitals—put residents of rural areas particularly at risk during public health shocks, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

One pilot program in rural Wisconsin is striving to eradicate such disparities by embedding hyperlocal food production in everyday community spaces. This will not only provide access to fresh produce, but foster a culture of local food ownership, supply chain transparency, and healthy living that will last for years to come.


The farm-rich state of Wisconsin is far too familiar with the challenges of food insecurity. Access to grocery stores is limited for low-income residents in both urban and rural areas, with dollar stores and gas stations often functioning as de facto food sources. Food access is particularly challenging in Rusk County, a rural area where 20.6% of children are food insecure and target=”_blank”96% of families are income-eligible for nutrition-based programs. These challenges have been exacerbated by rising food insecurity amid COVID-19.

To combat hunger in the Rusk County—and pilot a model for reducing rural food insecurity statewide— two Wisconsin-based organizations decided to look locally for solutions, turning to community centers, schools, child care centers, and other local civic organizations to provide residents with the tools and skills to grow their own healthy, fresh produce. Employing the principles of hyperlocal food production—a food access strategy meant to promote food security, transparency in agricultural supply chains, and environmental sustainability — Fork Farms and the Marshfield Clinic Health System are partnering to place indoor vertical hydroponic farming systems in critical community spaces, and combining farming systems with educational programming on healthy eating, innovation, and sustainability.

Fork Farms provides the hydroponic farming equipment (including the water systems, energy-efficient LED lights, submersible pumps, grower toolkits, and starter supplies), the health-oriented curriculum, and volunteers to assist with each site. Marshfield Clinic provides the funding and countywide connections to place the systems in community spaces such as community centers, K-12 schools, child care centers, thrift stores, and senior centers. This partnership allows food-insecure residents with minimal farming experience to produce (and own the production of) their own healthy foods. It also provides hyperlocal access to food production at a scale that can not only feed individual families, but supplement entire school lunch programs with healthy produce.

Overall, the pilot program—which we launched in December 2019 and are expanding daily amid the pandemic—is showing initial success at hyperlocal food production and supply chain transparency in a food-insecure community.


Although home to plenty of farmland and green space, access to healthy food in rural areas remains a persistent problem—one that COVID-19’s devastating effects have only magnified. Some ways to advance strategies to address these challenges through hyperlocal food production include:

  • Partnering across sectors to reduce barriers: To get the tools for hyperlocal food production in the hands of community members in remote rural areas, we needed to partner with a trusted health organization and the local community-based organizations where residents already spend their time. By bringing low-maintenance food production to schools, senior facilities, and other local spaces, we’ve helped reduce the burden (including travel time and costs) for residents to produce their own food, and furthered cross-sectoral partnerships across organizations to help meet residents’ multifaceted needs in common places. This has required adaptability amid COVID-19’s social distancing requirements in community spaces, but our farm systems have remained accessible— and increasingly vital—during the pandemic.
  • Identifying local champions to maximize impact: Since the start of the pandemic, we have scaled the pilot program from its 13 initial community sites to 15 more community spaces. Additional funding from our health system partner was critical in achieving this, but so too was the dedicated work of local “champions” at each site who lead the fresh food program, coordinate volunteers to plant and maintain the farm systems, and help harvest and distribute the food. By having one site champion overseeing the farm system, we’ve been able to increase productivity—producing over 20 pounds of leafy greens in each site every month—and have made residents feel more comfortable asking questions, learning, and eventually taking ownership over the process and growing their own food.
  • Fostering a culture around local production: Hyperlocal food production is often used in urban areas, with urban farms and gardening coalitions meeting residents’ needs in food deserts. But the need for hyperlocal production persists in remote, farm-rich areas too. By giving rural residents hands-on knowledge on how to grow their own food, eat healthily, and the importance of supply chains, we are gradually empowering rural residents to gain ownership of the food production process, adopt longitudinal health behaviors, and adapt a food access solution to their own place-based context.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to increase food access and empower communities to understand where and how their food is produced. By embedding tools for food production within community spaces, pairing farming systems with health-based education, and fostering a culture of local production, we’re advancing a sustainable, replicable model for improving food access and holistic health in rural areas. As communities continue to face new health and food access challenges each day, we hope to expand our model to additional sites and ensure that fresh, locally produced goods are an integral part of recovery.

Originally published at:

Goodrich Elementary School in Woodridge

Goodrich Elementary students learn about hydroponic food

Something exciting is growing in Cassandra Graff’s sixth-grade classroom at Goodrich Elementary School in Woodridge. Students are using the Flex Farm, innovative hydroponic technology, to grow fresh leafy greens year-round indoors. Students have already grown over 20 pounds of lettuce this school year.

Fork Farms began partnering with Woodridge District 68 in April 2019. There are currently four schools in the district with Flex Farms. Teachers are using the STEM curriculum provided by Fork Farms in partnership with FIRST Educational Resources. The curriculum lessons are designed to assist students in developing a deeper understanding and connection to hydroponic growing.

In Graff’s classroom, students conducted experiments with lettuce seeds planted in the Flex Farm. The experiments involved understanding the variables necessary to keep a plant alive (light, nutrients, space, water and air). Students were encouraged to test their hypothesis and record their findings. In addition to STEM learning in the classroom, Graff wanted to incorporate lessons on civic engagement and social responsibility..

“Students brainstormed ideas on what we can do with the lettuce that is grown in our classroom. Together, they decided on donating it to a local food pantry to benefit people within our community,” Graff said. “The food pantry is the West Suburban Food Pantry. The staff there have expressed how much the individuals receiving food enjoy the fresh produce. They are so happy to have things that aren’t in season locally but can be grown indoors using the Flex Farm.”

Alex Tyink, president of Fork Farms is excited about the positive outcomes at Woodridge Elementary.

“It is amazing to see all the different ways students are engaged in the classroom because of the Flex Farm. Teachers everywhere are coming up with new, creative ways to incorporate key learnings through hands-on education” said Tyink. “Not only are students being exposed to STEM-based learning, but they are also learning how to be responsible stewards of their own bodies, our planet and communities. That is really special and inspiring.”

On Thursday, Oct. 10, staff from the West Suburban Food Pantry visited elementary students to share the positive impact their lettuce is having on the community.


This article was originally published in the Daily Herald: