LA Times Vertical Farming Article

No dirt? No farm? No problem. The potential for soil-less agriculture is huge

By CATHARINE HAMM

Imagine kale that doesn’t taste like a punishment for something you did in a previous life. Envision leafy greens that aren’t limp from their journey to your plate. Anticipate the intense flavor of just-picked herbs that kick up your latest culinary creation a notch or three.

Then consider the possibility that such advancements will play a role in altering the face of agriculture, becoming sources of flavorful, fresh produce in “food deserts” and making farm-to-table restaurant cuisine possible because produce is grown on the premises, even in urban areas.

This is the potential and the promise of hydroponics (a term that also includes aeroponics and aquaponics systems), the soil-less cultivation of crops in controlled environments. It’s a growing industry — $9.5 billion in sales is expected to nearly double in the next five years — that stems, in part, from concerns about growing enough food to feed a worldwide population expected to hit 10 billion in the next 30 years.

The growing method isn’t new. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, dating to the 6th century B.C., may be a precursor to today’s hydroponics, if they existed. (Historians disagree on that as well as where the gardens were.) Then, as now, technology is a key to giving growers, not Mother Nature, more control over production.

The size of today’s systems varies. They might be as simple and compact as an in-home system that’s about the size of a couple of loaves of bread stacked on top of each other. Some of the growing popularity of those units may be connected to the pandemic, according to Paul Rabaut, director of marketing for AeroGarden, which produces systems for in-home crop production.

“As soon as the pandemic was declared in mid-March and the quarantine took effect, we saw immediate growth spikes, unlike anything we’d ever seen before,” he said. Those spikes resulted, he said, from the need for entertainment beyond Netflix and jigsaw puzzles, a desire to minimize trips to the grocery store and the promise of teachable moments for kids now schooled at home.

At the other end of the spectrum are large urban farms. Plenty, for instance, has a South San Francisco hydroponics growing facility where a million plant sites produce crops, some of which are sold through area grocery stores. The company hopes to open a farm in Compton this year that’s expected to be about the size of a big-box store and will grow the equivalent of 700 acres of food.

“It’s a super vibrant community with a rich agricultural history,” Nate Storey, a cofounder of the vertical farming company, said of the Compton facility. “It also happens to be a food desert.

“Americans eat only about 30% of what they should be eating as far as fresh foods,” he said. “We started this company because we realized the world needed more fresh fruits and vegetables.”

As different as hydroponics growing systems are, most have this in common: The plants thrive because of the nutrients they receive and the consistency of the environment and can produce crops of fresh leafy greens and other vegetables, various herbs and sometimes fruits.

Such controlled-environment agriculture is part of the larger trend of urban farms, recognized last year by the May opening of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. The farms’ proximity to larger markets means produce can be delivered quickly to consumers, whether they’re grocery shoppers, airline passengers, students or communities in need or restaurants, an industry that has been devastated in the last year.

Today’s micro- and mega-farms have taken on increased importance, partly because of world hunger, which will increase as the population grows.

Add increasing urbanization that is gobbling available agricultural land in many countries, mix in climate change and the scramble for water to grow crops — as much as 70% of the world’s water is used for agriculture — and the planet may be at a tipping point.

No single change in the approach to feeding the world will shift the balance by itself.

Hydroponic farming is “a solution,” said Alexander Olesen, a cofounder of Babylon Microfarms in Virginia, which uses its small growing units to help corporate cafeterias, senior living centers, hotels and resorts provide fresh produce, “but they are not the solution.”

For one thing, not all crops are viable. Nearly everything can be grown using hydroponics but some crops, such as wheat, some root vegetables (including carrots, beets and onions), and melons and vining crops, are impractical. The easiest crops to grow: leafy greens, including spinach and lettuce; microgreens; herbs such as basil, cilantro, oregano and marjoram; some vegetables, such as green peppers and cucumbers; and certain fruits, including tomatoes and strawberries.

Although hydroponic farming means crops grow faster — thus increasing output — the process comes with a significant carbon footprint, according to “The Promise of Urban Agriculture,” a report by the Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Marketing Service and Cornell University Small Farms Program. Lights generate heat, which then must be removed by cooling. Lettuce grown in traditional greenhouses is far cheaper, the report says.

If these crops can be grown traditionally — in a garden or in a commercial field — why bother with growing systems that are less intuitive than planting seeds, watering and harvesting? Among the reasons:

Climate control: Such indoor agriculture generally means consistent light, temperatures, nutrients and moisture for crops no longer held hostage by nature’s cycles of drought, storms and seasons.

Environmental friendliness: Pesticides generally aren’t used and thus create no harmful runoff, unlike field-grown crops.

Productivity: Leafy greens tend to be cool-season crops, but in a controlled environment, it’s an any-time-of-year crop without the worry of depleting the soil because of overuse because, of course, there is no soil.

Use of space: AeroFarms, a former steel mill in Newark, N.J., boasts that it can produce 2 million pounds of food each year in its 70,000 square feet, or about 1.3 acres. California’s Monterey County, by contrast, uses nearly 59,000 acres — out of 24.3 million acres statewide of ranches and farms — to grow its No. 1 crop, which is leaf lettuce valued at $840.6 million, its 2019 crop report showed.

Food safety: In E. coli outbreaks in late October and early November of last year, fingers pointed to romaine lettuce that sickened consumers in 19 states, including California. In November and December of 2019, three other outbreaks of the bacterial illness were traced to California’s Salinas Valley. A Food and Drug Administration study, released in May with results from that trio of outbreaks, “suggest(s) that a potential contributing factor has been the proximity of cattle,” whose feces often contain the bacteria and can find its way into water systems.

That’s less of an issue with crops in controlled-environment agriculture, said Alex Tyink, president of Fork Farms of Green Bay, Wis., which produces growing systems suitable for homes and schools.

“In the field, you can’t control what goes where,” he said, including wildlife, livestock or even birds that may find their way into an open growing area.

And as for workers, “The human safety approaches that we take [with] people in our farm make it hard for them to contaminate even if they wanted to,” he said.

“Before people walk in, they gown up, put their hair in nets, beards in nets, put on eye covering and bootie covers for their shoes, then walk through a water bath.”

::

None of the statistics matter, though, unless the quality of soil-less crops matches or exceeds that produced traditionally.

Not a contest, new-age growers say. Flavors of leafy greens, for example, tend to be more detectable and, in some cases, more intense.

So much so that when AeroFarms introduced its baby kale in a New York grocery store, Marc Oshima, a cofounder and chief marketing officer, says he saw a woman do what he called a “happy dance” when she sampled this superfood. The version that AeroFarms produces is lighter and has a “sweet finish,” Oshima said, compared with adult kale grown in traditional ways that some say make the superfood fibrous and bitter.

Storey, the cofounder of Plenty, judged his Crispy Lettuce mix successful when his children got into a “rolling-on-the-floor fistfight” over a package of it.

Some credit for that flavor can be attributed to the time from harvest to market. Arizona and California are the top lettuce producers in the U.S., but by the time the greens get to other parts of the country, they have lost some of their oomph. AeroFarms and Plenty, for instance, distribute their commercial products to nearby grocery stores in New York and the Bay Area, respectively, where their time to market is significantly reduced.

And when was the last time you had a salad on an airplane flight that didn’t taste like water gone bad? Before the pandemic constricted airline traffic, AeroFarms was growing greens to be served to passengers on Singapore Airlines flights from New York’s JFK. The fresh vegetables traveled just five miles from the warehouse to Singapore’s catering kitchen, a new twist on farm to (tray) tabletop.

Because the turnaround from harvest to market is shorter, Storey said his products often last several weeks when refrigerated.

And perhaps best of all? Growers say that because the greens have a flavor — some peppery, some like mustard — salad dressing may be optional, perhaps dispossessed in favor of the flavor of naked greens.

Getting consumers interested in vegetables and incorporating those foods into their diets is especially important, growers say, because of skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, especially for populations in food deserts.

Tyink grew up in rural Wisconsin but moved to New York to pursue a career in opera. By chance, he sampled some produce from a rooftop garden that he called life-altering. “My eating habits changed because [the greens] changed my emotional connection to food,” he said.

His exposure to homelessness and poverty on the streets of New York also focused his attention on what people consume and why. Price and convenience often drive bad food decisions and unhealthy habits.

Young farmers in training can help change those habits; some of Fork Farms’ systems are used in schools and other nonprofit organizations for children. Kids become accidental ambassadors for the nutrient-rich crops, and the fruits of their labors go to school cafeterias or to local food distribution centers in their communities.

“I really think when you lose fresh, locally produced food, you lose something of [the] culture,” said Lee Altier, professor of horticulture at Chico State University, where he has been working with students to develop its aquaponics program. “I think it is so important when communities have an awareness … that this is for their social integrity.”

As for the future, much still needs to be done to put such products in the right hands at the right time. That requires investment, innovation and technology to perfect the systems and keep costs under control, never mind persuading buyers and consumers that food that’s healthy can also be satisfying.

Is it a puzzle worth solving? Storey thinks so. “I want to live in a world where [we create] delicious, amazing things,” he said, “knowing that they are not coming at a cost that we don’t want to pay.”

Original article link: https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2021-01-21/hydroponics-agriculture-vertical-farming

Author: Catharine Hamm

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Catharine Hamm is the former Travel editor for the Los Angeles Times and became a special contributor in June 2020. She was born in Syracuse, N.Y., to a peripatetic family whose stops included Washington, D.C.; Honolulu; and Manila. Her varied media career has taken her from McPherson, Kan., to Kansas City, Mo., San Bernardino, Salinas and L.A. Hamm has twice received individual Lowell Thomas Awards, and the Travel section has been recognized seven times during her tenure as editor. Her favorite place? Always where she’s going next.

Appleton Teacher Harvesting Lettuce

Donation from East Wisconsin Savings Bank puts Appleton native’s Flex Farms hydroponic units into Fox Valley schools

Natalie Brophy, Appleton Post-Crescent

Published Dec. 1, 2020

APPLETON – Alex Tyink attended Appleton Area School District schools when he was growing up. Now, students in Appleton and in other Fox Valley schools are using his invention to grow their own produce.

Tyink is the founder and president of Fork Farms, a Green Bay-based business that makes vertical hydroponic systems called Flex Farms, which grow produce indoors without soil. Flex Farms units are white plastic structures surrounding a tower of LED lights.

The combination of the lights, nutrient solution and water mimic the conditions plants need to grow. Each unit is powered by a standard electrical socket, takes up less than 10 square feet and can hold 288 plants.

Thanks to a nearly $64,000 donation from East Wisconsin Savings Bank, four Fox Valley schools received Flex Farm to use in classrooms and to grow produce for school lunches.

Appleton East High School received one of the units. Environmental science teacher Ryan Marx said he has been wanting to get Flex Farms into the school for about five years.

Marx is already familiar with gardening and growing food — he has a garden at the high school and donates all the food to St. Joseph’s Food Program in Menasha. One drawback with Marx’s garden is that most of the work is done in the summer, when students are not in school. With Flex Farms, students will learn to grow healthy, nutritious food throughout the year.

“I think it’s so important for students to know where their food comes from,” Marx said.

Appleton students are learning virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, but once the district is back to in-person classes, Marx wants to teach his students to run the Flex Farms unit.

“My goal is to have the students run the whole thing,” Marx said. “They’re going to plant, they’re going to take care of the chemicals. That’s my goal, to have the students run it like a mini-farm.”

The donation from East Wisconsin Savings Bank also provided Flex Farms for the Kaukauna, Little Chute and Freedom school districts.

“What I like about this program, especially at Appleton East, is they really incorporate that whole education process into this program,” said Charlie Schmalz, president and CEO of East Wisconsin Savings Bank. “So it’s not just about growing healthy food – obviously that’s huge. But it’s the process of where does our food come from and how is it developed and what does that mean, that holistic understanding of how this works in our society.”

Tyink came up with the idea for Flex Farms while he was living in Brooklyn, New York. He wanted to make it more easier and more affordable for people to grow their own high quality, fresh, nutritious foods. Flex Farms is a way to “grow food for the masses, by the masses,” Tyink said.

Green leaf lettuce grows in one of numerous Flex Farms, which are vertical hydroponic farming systems, used to grow fresh produce indoors at Appleton East High School Monday, November 23, 2020, in Appleton, Wis. Through a donation from East Wisconsin Savings Bank, Appleton East is one of several schools receiving the Flex Farms from a company in Green Bay called Fork Farms.

Leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, kale and herbs grow best in the Flex Farms, but people can grow just about anything, Tyink said. At Appleton East, Marx is growing six different kinds of lettuce and has already had at least two harvests, he said. Each Flex Farms growing cycle is about 28 days.

“Myself as a gardener, I am just so amazed by the system,’ Marx said. “How easy it is and how clean it is. There’s no soil whatsoever so there’s no mess. It’s just really easy.”

Exposing students to growing food is a priority for Tyink, he said. He’s noticed that students are more likely to eat fresh, healthy food when they grow it themselves.

Tyink said he’s pleased to see his invention being used by students in his hometown. He credits science teachers he had while he was a student in Appleton for getting him interested in science. Tyink said the whole Fox Valley community has been supportive of him and his company.

“What I think is so unique to this community is you’ve got a local bank donating to all these local school systems, that’s supporting also a local company that’s providing this really unique technology,” Tyink said. “It’s just like this incredible story of partnership, I think.”

Image credit: Dan Powers, USA Today Network Wisconsin
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]