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

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