Alex Tyink, Founder of Fork Farms

Fork Farms grows from unlikely detour in owner’s life

Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt

Special to the Green Bay Press-Gazette

Alex Tyink, owner of Fork Farms of Green Bay, fell in love with gardening on a rooftop in Brooklyn, New York. It was an unlikely detour for Tyink, an opera singer who found himself with extra time between performances. Couped up in his apartment and dealing with some depression, he volunteered to help with the rooftop farm.

“The garden was created by a sculpturer, and it was a cool social model where the food he was growing went to friends, family, and a food pantry that was located on the lower level of the building. It was a neat ecosystem and it was where I learned to grow hydroponically,” Tyink explained.

He says it was the single most transformative event in his life. When he ate the food, he discovered that it not only contributed to his overall health, it was also an antidote to depression.

“When you put your own sweat into something, you can’t help but become more emotionally attached. Involvement and engagement breeds connection and connection leads to real, sustainable change,” he commented on his website.

In his business, he hopes to share those benefits. Simply defined, hydroponic gardening is a method of growing plants without soil by adding nutrients directly into the water supply. The benefits include faster growth, year-round growing, healthier plants, bigger yields, and pesticide-free produce.

What he discovered initially was that the cost per pound produced was high. In starting Fork Farms in 2010 as a consultant, he sought to utilize state of the art technology while researching ways to lower the costs of indoor gardening to create a more effective system.

“I did more than a dozen installations, and was learning every step of the way. The need to reduce costs was the inspiration for my design work. It took three years to figure it out, 30 plus prototypes and a ton of my own money. I was tinkering, but I was passionate,” he noted. In 2012, by paying close attention to how all of the pieces fit together, he stumbled onto the idea of using the right light with the right reflective surfaces. That lowered the kilowatt hours, and made the process more energy efficient.

“We were able to grow for less than half the cost that others were doing. At that point, my plan was to move to Madison, build these systems, and be a farmer,” he said.

The plan changed when he was offered a job in 2016 as program director for Goodwill NCW. Goodwill, along with Bassett Mechanical, supported him as he developed Flex Farm Generation

1, a hydroponic system made out of stainless steel. He did eight field-test installations and received encouraging feedback.

In 2016, he left Goodwill and formed a partnership with Feeding America, where he also served as director of programs and innovation. From there, the progress has been steady. An angel investor came onboard and a seed capital round in 2018 raised $750,000. Tyink was getting noticed and Fork Farms won the THINC! Innovation Award.

“My cofounder says the reason he invested in me is that I have the ability to pick things up quickly,” he stated. “I think the thing that motivates me is helping people. I’m not doing this for the money; you don’t get into this sort of thing thinking you will be a millionaire. You do it because you have this deep need to see it through and because you believe in it.”

Now, with the launch of Flex Farm Generation 4, there have been over 500 Flex Farm installations completed in 22 states and Canada. The market for the product, which he says is the latest and greatest innovation in indoor, vertical farming technology, is huge and has global promise.

The major markets include commercial users such as kitchens and cafeterias, nonprofit organizations looking for ways to increase access to healthy and fresh food, educators as a way to provide a learning tool for students and food for the school and community, and home users who are seeking a year-round source to fresh food.

Because of the pandemic and fear of a breakdown in the food supply chain, Tyink said the business is adapting the business to a new environment. From his headquarters at TitletownTech in Green Bay (a partnership between the Green Bay Packers and Microsoft that identifies, builds and funds early-stage, highgrowth businesses), he says that he finds it amazing to see how far the business has come.

“I think this is something that will be everywhere; a method of growing that seeps into all parts of our lives,” he commented. “Hindsight being 2020, I have to say that this whole experience has been the greatest learning experience of my life. I am just really grateful.”

Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and Past District Director for SCORE, Wisconsin.

Copyright © 2020 Green Bay Press Gazette

Uw Extension Parntership

Partnerships Make it Happen!

By Laura Apfelbeck, FoodWIse Coordinator & Elena Garcia, UW-Green Bay Dietetic Intern

One in five Wisconsin children are food insecure, a situation worsened by COVID-19. Food insecure households do not have the food they need or are uncertain they will be able to get it. Poor nutrition leads to poorer school outcomes, poorer health outcomes, lower life expectancy, and increased healthcare costs. In Wisconsin, food insecurity among families with kids rose from 9% common in 2015-2019 to nearly 23% in April-June 2020.

Emergency food programs are trying to assist but struggle to afford fresh food. Food pantries may receive donated produce near or past expiration dates. Since vitamins deplete over time, older produce is less nutritious. In light of these issues, FoodWIse has partnered with multiple organizations to offer support.

Earlier this year, Fork Farms of Appleton announced a plan to help nonprofits acquire hydroponic grow systems as part of their response to COVID-19. FoodWIse proposed the idea for using Flex Farms to grow and distribute fresh greens to low-income people. A single Flex Farm can produce over 20lbs of greens each month.

In June, Fork Farms matched the Hmong Senior Meals project with a funder, UnitedHealthcare who generously donated a Flex Farm system. Since senior meal programs are impossible right now, Master Gardeners agreed to grow greens for one year for donation. First Presbyterian Community Meals will serve fresh green salad at the weekly community meal and Salvation Army Food Pantry will promote and distribute bagged salad greens.

As part of the wrap around programming, UW-Green Bay Dietetic Intern Elena Garcia created materials to promote consumption of greens by kids and healthy dressing recipes. Her two videos can be found utilizing the videos below:

How to Get Kids Interested in Vegetables

Homemade Salad Dressing

Flex Farm - Generation 4

Fork Farms nominated in Coolest Thing Made in Wisconsin contest

GREEN BAY  — Time is ticking away for you to cast a vote for the Coolest Thing Made in Wisconsin contest.

A few of our area businesses made the list of nominees including Fork Farms in Green Bay.

They have been nominated for their Flex Farm – Gen 4.

It’s a piece of hydroponic farming technology that controls everything a plant needs to thrive.

The system uses a specific type of LED light, and when it’s enclosed the light is re-captured. This way it requires significantly less artificial light to grow the same amount of food.

“The Flex Farm is the most efficient farm on the planet,” said Alex Tyink, the President for Fork Farms. “It uses considerably less water, energy and land than any other system of its kind.”

The water lives in the bottom reservoirs and a pump circulates the water throughout the panels and feeds the plants.

All you have to do is check the water once a week and plug it in. The light is on a timer.

It is commonly used to grow leafy vegetables and herbs such as lettuce, spinach, kale, basil and mint.

“I think we are the coolest thing made in Wisconsin because this is a way we can address some significant food issues that we have across the entire planet,” said Tynk. “There are so many people that are facing food insecurity and there is so much lack of fresh food and quality of fresh food. This is a way to ensure our community is resilient and we can continue to feed the people we care about the most.”

The Flex Farm can be used in schools for learning, the healthcare system, and in organizations that target hunger relief.

It costs $4695 and pays itself off in about two years.

Voting for the first round of the Coolest Thing Made in Wisconsin runs through this Sunday. Click here to cast your vote.

 

Originally Published by: Brooke Hafs, NBC 26 September 18, 2020  | Article Link

Press Release 08 04 2020

Ag-Tech startup, Fork Farms, Brings Sustainable Food Movement to TitletownTech

TitletownTech invests in growing happier, healthier lifestyles

Green Bay, Wisconsin – TitletownTech today announced their investment in Fork Farms, an ag-tech startup that revolutionizes the future of fresh food production. Fork Farms’ flagship product, the Flex Farm, is an indoor vertical hydroponic system that is energy and cost efficient. The Flex Farm makes sustainable food practices both easy and accessible for everyone; from educators and home growers to commercial users and nonprofits.

“We’re excited to partner with Fork Farms and continue to see the impact they will have on the market,” said Craig Dickman, Managing Director at TitletownTech. “Low accessibility of fresh food is a huge problem for many people, and Fork Farms is a great example of local entrepreneurs chasing a big opportunity to make positive change.”

The Founder of Fork Farms, Alex Tyink, has a background in urban agriculture and has witnessed the challenges surrounding availability and access of fresh food. With Tyink’s decade of experience in the social services sector, he set out to help people lead healthier and happier lifestyles through the disruption of the traditional food system. Fork Farms was the winner of the 2019 Wisconsin Innovation Award for product design and is recently published in Placemaking Postcards blog series from the Bass Center at Brookings Institute.

“TitletownTech is an incredibly innovative model that will significantly bolster the local start-up economy. It provides an exemplary blueprint that should be followed by other organizations around the country. The depth of support is unprecedented and will provide Fork Farms significant acceleration and lift to our organization’s mission of unleashing the power of fresh food production. Fork Farms’ is looking forward to exponentially growing our business and focusing on ways that we can create transformative social benefit,” said Alex Tyink.

Vertical hydroponic systems are at the forefront of eco-friendly growing initiatives. The Fork Farms’ Flex Farm eliminates food transportation costs, consumes 97% less water than traditional agriculture practices, and is 40% more energy efficient compared to hydroponic systems in the market. The Flex Farm is also a versatile hands-on learning tool and comes with robust educational opportunities and lessons. TitletownTech is excited to partner with Fork Farms to bring sustainable, environmentally conscious Flex Farm systems into more markets across the U.S.

About Fork Farms

Fork Farms started on the principle that growing fresh and healthy food is a vehicle for positive change in the world. We believe that having consistent access to the freshest, highest quality food is a human right. That’s why we created the Flex Farm, a highly efficient, indoor vertical hydroponic system that is easy to use and continually provides harvest after harvest of fresh produce. Our patented technology is the product of more than a decade’s worth of continuous research and development of prototypes. The Flex Farm can produce up to 3,400 plants annually, requires less than three hours of maintenance per month, and costs less than $1.00 per pound to operate. The Flex Farm is 40% more energy-efficient than other hydroponic systems, uses 97% less water than traditional agriculture and has zero food miles and minimal waste. We know our technology can be a true conduit for social change. We at Fork Farms envision a future with a food system that places the benefits of nutrition into the hands of every person. forkfarms.com.

About TitletownTech

Formed out of a partnership between the Green Bay Packers and Microsoft, TitletownTech builds, enables and invests in early-stage and existing businesses. The organization identifies solutions, develops startups, and funds entrepreneurs across five key verticals: sports, media and entertainment; digital health; agriculture, water & environment; advanced manufacturing; and supply chain technology. Through a three-part structure, TitletownTech enables innovation, exploration, and disruption to address industry challenges. The Innovation Lab identifies and explores digital, transformative solutions. The Venture Studio develops creative market solutions with new and existing startups. The Venture Fund invests in high-growth scalable ventures that leverage the region’s strengths. titletowntech.com.

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.

PROMOTING HYPERLOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION AND OWNERSHIP

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.

THINKING DIFFERENTLY ABOUT RURAL FOOD ACCESS

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: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/07/16/how-rural-wisconsin-is-embedding-hyperlocal-food-production-in-community-spaces/

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

5th Grader at Xavier

How a hydroponic unit named Brooke kept the lights on and the greens leafy at Appleton’s Xavier Middle School

The classrooms are dark and hallways are empty at Xavier Middle School these days, as statewide school closures extend through the remainder of the school year to fend off the coronavirus.

But inside Cindy Foss’ fifth grade classroom, leafy greens continue to sprout from a tall, white plastic structure circling a tower of lights.

It’s a hydroponic growing unit from Fork Farms — an agriculture technology company based in Appleton — that uses a combination of nutrient solutions, water and LED lights to grow plants, rather than the soil, water and sunshine outside.

The unit was donated to St. Francis Xavier Catholic Schools in February, and it was later placed in Foss’ classroom. The students planted seeds, lovingly attending to them daily as they waited impatiently for them to germinate.

Finally, after germination in early March, the students were able to transfer their plants to the hydroponic unit, where they’d grow into a crop of leafy greens. They eagerly awaited their first harvest, referring to the unit as “Brooke” or “the time machine” and naming plants other goofy names like “giraffe,” Foss recalled with a laugh.

But on March 13, Gov. Tony Evers mandated all schools shut down — at first, for two weeks. Then, the closures became indefinite. Last week, Evers declared schools would continue to be closed for the rest of the school year.

“We had just gotten the Fork Farm unit going and the kids were really enjoying watching everything grow,” said Chris Goulet, STEM coordinator for the school system. “I think we were all really disappointed thinking that when we had to leave school that that Fork Farm was just going to perish.”

5th Graders Planting Xavier 2020

Goulet recalled she was in tears that day, thinking of all the work Foss’ class had put into the plants, and how the class was going to show off the first crop at a STEM night she’d planned for March 26. The rest was going to go to the school salad bar or food pantries.

But then Joe Linsmeier stepped in. As Xavier Middle School’s facilities director, he was the only staff member allowed on campus during the closures, and he offered to take care of the unit.

And Linsmeier seems to be the perfect person for the job — he happens to have grown up on a farm and knows a thing or two about growing things, Goulet said.

Every day, Linsmeier checked the water, tested the pH level and added more nutrients as needed. He’d regularly send photos of the unit’s progress to Foss, who shares the images with her class over email and phone video chats as she teaches remotely.

“It was really difficult for the kids that they weren’t going to be able to really learn how to take care of these plants. We’d been planning all these jobs and each person was going to play a different part in it all,” Foss said. “Now kids are emailing me like ‘How’s Brooke doing?’ ‘Are we going to do this next year?'”

By last week, the unit had produced over 20 pounds of leafy greens that were donated to St. Joseph’s Food Program in Menasha.

After the first crop, Goulet assumed she’d need to go to the school to show Linsmeier how to shut down the unit until school begins again in the fall.

But Linsmeier wasn’t having it, telling Goulet: “A good farmer always grows as many crops as he can in the season.”

Linsmeier planted a second crop last week, and the school system plans to continue donating its crops to St. Joseph’s.

Originally Published by: Samantha West, Appleton Post-Crescent on April 21, 2020 | Article Link

Golf Kitchen Magazine

A Fresh Take on Club Dining

Originally published in Golf Kitchen Magazine

There is nothing quite like working with freshly harvested produce. You can distinctly smell, feel and see the difference in quality – there is an unequivocal vibrance to the product. From fragrant, sweet and peppery basil to crisp, succulent romaine, you cannot help but notice the abundance of flavor in each bite.

Now, imagine if you were able to have year-round access to this quality produce steps away from your kitchen. Within minutes, you could harvest, prepare and serve delicious food to your members. This might sound a bit like a culinary fantasy, but in reality, it is achievable when growing fresh produce hydroponically in a controlled environment. Growing produce where you cook and dine gives you complete control over supply chain, quality and freshness.

An exceptional dining experience should be the highlight of the club experience for members. Diners are growing ever more concerned with the nutritional value and quality of their food. Offering the best ingredients year-round enables your culinary team to continuously meet and exceed their expectations. This is especially important when a club is looking to attract new members. Interest in innovative and sustainable culinary options provides a new opportunity for business growth.

Growing produce hydroponically makes good business sense. Through recent technological advancements, hydroponic systems are affordable and have minimal operational expenses. Advancements in water use and lighting makes growing hydroponically the most efficient type of farming for leafy greens. Furthermore, product waste is significantly decreased due to the extended shelf life. Leafy greens are not sitting on trucks for days during transport, only to go bad within a few days of arriving. Produce stays fresher longer, giving your culinary team the opportunity to use every harvest in its entirety. Having this level of control over your produce elevates your culinary operation and delights and engages your members in new and exciting ways.

Growing hydroponically is nothing new for humanity. In fact, early applications can be traced back to Egyptian civilizations, the Aztecs of Central America and even the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. With its ancient roots, modern hydroponics provides solutions to some of our biggest agricultural challenges.

In the United States, leaf lettuce is highly susceptible to contamination, weather and transportation disruptions. Up to 99% of lettuce is grown in California and Arizona, with production concentrated in just a few select regions. Over the last five years, unseasonably cold weather, drought, flooding and foodborne illness outbreaks have caused numerous nationwide recalls of lettuce products. Fortunately, local, indoor hydroponic food production is a cost-effective solution to these issues. Application of hydroponics is simple. The right amount of nutrients, combined with pH balanced water and the correct amount of light, results in consistent yields of highly nutritious leafy greens and other produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries.

The design of any hydroponic system must meet specific space requirements, budgetary considerations and labor availability. That is why Fork Farms created the Flex Farm. When it comes to hydroponic growing, the Flex Farm is in a league of its own. The Flex Farm optimizes energy and labor efficiency, making it one of the easiest and most cost-effective hydroponic systems on the planet.

Flex Farms are fully self-contained hydroponic growing systems that are safe, simple and versatile. They are designed to protect against agriculture based-food safety concerns without using any herbicides or pesticides. With just one mechanical part, minimal maintenance is required. Flex Farms are also portable and only need a standard electrical outlet and less than 10 square feet of space – about the same amount of space required for a standard home refrigerator.

Anyone can unleash the power of fresh food with a Flex Farm. They cost less than $1.50 a day to operate and require minimal labor – about 2-3 hours a month total. In 28 days, you can grow more than 20 pounds of leafy greens. That’s more than 3,400 individual plants in one year. Compared to traditional agriculture, Flex Farms eliminate food miles and waste, grow 45 times more produce and require 97% less water. Best part, no heavy equipment or green thumb required!

Clubs across the United States and internationally are seeking ways to attract and retain members. Innovation in the food and beverage space provides a unique opportunity to add value beyond the traditional club offerings. Club diners are becoming more conscious about healthy eating and high-quality ingredients. Growing food hydroponically provides clubs the opportunity to engage members in fresh dining experiences.

If you are interested in learning more about how Flex Farms can bring innovation into your culinary and dining experience, contact Fork Farms at:

Direct: 920.515.0730
Toll-Free: 877.886.7736
Email: [email protected]

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.

PUTTING DOWN ROOTS

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.

A GROWING TREND

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.”

A NEW LEAF

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.

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: https://www.dailyherald.com/submitted/20191007/goodrich-elementary-students-learn-about-hydroponic-food