Sparkling diamond grows in inner city
MILWAUKEE – The world is full of problems. Some folks rattle off lists of those problems while telling us there is no hope and the future is bleak. But others look at problems in a different way. They see them as challenges to be met and overcome. They even look at some problems as hidden opportunities. And once in a great while one of those people who sees opportunities has an idea that is like a fine diamond – from any angle it sparkles with light and promise.
In the heart of Milwaukee, houses form rows on street after street. Along railroad tracks buildings stand, some vacant. Cars and trucks whiz past on their way to other places. Pavement, street lights and signs stand where – until the past couple of hundred years – nature flourished. Along North 31st Street a well-maintained building looks similar to others. But what is inside the building is completely unexpected; it’s an idea like a fine diamond. Step inside and living green catches the eye. Bright warm light comes from a room filled with high shelves. The shelves are full of beautiful healthy plants. Hidden in plain sight along North 31st Street is a unique urban farm that is solving problems and creating opportunity.
Hundred Acre is the work of Chris Corkery. On a cold December morning, as a strong wind whipped off Lake Michigan, Corkery paused for a moment from that work.
“The Hundred Acre Farm is the first of its kind,” he said. “It is a prototype (designed) by my organization. It’s a ground-up design. We brought together technology and infrastructure to create our own method of growing. It incorporates a controlled environment with vertical hydroponics.”
Hydroponics has been used to produce crops for decades. But the system of vertical inner-city farms envisioned by Corkery is a new opportunity for Milwaukee.
“When a farm like ours is compared to a traditional soil-based farm, here in central Milwaukee we run about 32 times more efficiently, and we produce 3,200 percent more crops (in a similar space.) The reason is simple. We grow indoors vertically in cubic feet, not square feet (as in a field). We go five layers high. So we have a square foot (than on the ground) times five. So for us vertical farming is five times more productive. Because we are creating conditions indoors, the plants grow three times more quickly. The types of lettuce we grow take about 12 weeks outdoors exposed to Mother Nature. At Hundred Acre it takes about four weeks (to be market-ready).
“We have four full-time and two part-time staff, plus myself. We have a number of short-term student-based programs. We host field trips. We partner with schools to have university students come and engage with our living laboratory as part of their own academic projects. Those projects can be anything from social justice to civil engineering and industrial engineering. Next week we will start hosting a group of students from Milwaukee Public Schools who will get training in basic tasks to gain job experience.
“The facility is laid out like an assembly line. We designed it thinking about what it means to go from seed to sale. We used a controlled environment; every room is dedicated to a specific function.
“We have a propagation room – basically a nursery. Computer technology controls the health of the entire farm system. It monitors the air, water and lighting and adjusts as needed to work most efficiently. Our farm-tech associates (staff) handle the plants. The most enjoyable thing a farmer does is handling plants. Love for the plants and a connection to them is the central focus of our farm techs. From the nursery the plants go to the transplanting room. The team spreads plants out into long channels. Plants are fed with nutrient-rich water; we have a specific recipe. The water passes over the root of each plant. Excess water drips out on the other end and flows into a tank for recirculation. We are very efficient with water. We use 90 percent less water than conventional farming.
“Our plants remain in one of four zones, with one zone being harvested each week. We harvest four zones per month because it takes four weeks for our plants to be ready for harvest.”
After harvest the plants are inspected, cleaned, packed and placed in cold storage to await delivery.
“We grow mixed salad greens and basil,” Corkery said. “We have unmatched quality. The shelf life of the greens is impossible to compete with because of how close we are to our customers and hydroponic-grown greens last longer. Our salad greens last three weeks in a refrigerator without spoilage. Our basil lasts from seven to 10 days, which is also unheard of.
“Hundred Acre Farm is the largest indoor vertical hydroponic of this type in southeast Wisconsin. We are one of the largest in the state. We produce over 50,000 pounds of fresh greens each year within 3,000 square feet of grow space.”
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The project is exciting because of what else is possible.
“We can rapidly transform distressed properties into community food hubs – food hubs that are a clean green-production facility with awesome jobs,” he said. “They are a space for people to engage around. They offer a path to healthier living while they support locally grown food. No matter what time of year it is in Milwaukee, it’s always summer at the Hundred Acre Farm.
“We have a unique mix of customers. We sell to a restaurant network; high-end restaurants love what we have to offer. It is hard for them to find the type of quality we produce. We have a streamlined local approach to doing business with them; we take the headache away from the chef. We want to sell to every restaurant that uses what we grow – salad-blend lettuce and Italian large-leaf basil. Our focus is to establish a partnership with the various food businesses in Milwaukee that use our product.
The farm has launched a partnership with Feeding America, the largest charity working to end hunger in the United States by partnering with food banks, food pantries and local food programs.
“They are essential to food security as a food distributer,” Corkery said. “A week ago Feeding America distributed the 10,000th salad from Hundred Acre Farm to the local community.”
Another partnership is with Sodexo USA, which provides facilities management and food services to schools, universities, hospitals, senior-living communities and other venues. They provide produce to the dining halls at Marquette University and the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
‘The university students are eating food from Hundred Acre and coming here to do projects,” he said. “We’re selling our products through two prominent local grocery chains. We are also entering into partnerships with traditional distributers. If customers are happy with our product, we can focus on another location and focus on another crop like arugula.
“Our vision for Milwaukee is to build out multiple locations, each with a Hundred Acre Farm within a 20-mile radius to form a network, the largest in the United States. We want our project to be in the inner city because there is so much benefit. The awareness and accessibility are unmatched. We can reach target populations when it comes to customers. Most customers are within 15 minutes of our farm and I know because I’m the delivery guy!
“We’re not about bigger farms. We’re about decentralizing the food system by creating more inner-city farms that service each neighborhood. In a place like Milwaukee there is a lot of unused space; we have a good idea now of how to revitalize real estate. We can use it to produce fresh produce. Each farm requires good people to work at it. Why not have young people from the neighborhood? It’s a pretty simple ecosystem. We are getting back to the basics of what farms used to do for local communities.
“We are excited about how far we’ve gotten, but we aren’t done. We’re looking for people to come work with us at the farm. With our one-year anniversary near we’re looking to grow. Our customers are the ones that sustain us. We work with them and ask them to invest in our product that is grown in their own backyard. Instead of putting their money into a far-off place, we ask them to invest in their own neighborhood. It makes good business sense. It makes good social sense. And it makes good financial sense.”
Some would say there is a miracle growing along North 31st Street in Milwaukee. Inside a building there’s a farm that grows local food year-round for nearby customers who are the farm’s neighbors. Some of those customers who are neighbors are wealthy; many are not. Some of the neighbors work at the farm. The money the neighbors spend and earn at the farm circulates through the community.
The farm is a food hub that is a gathering place that provides a sense of belonging and community in the neighborhood. Students visit to study and learn. Working with the plants links folks to nature. Nature is respected and nurtured through wise practices like a system that reuses 90 percent of the water needed to grow plants. Produce from the farm is second to none. That produce is available at Milwaukee’s food banks, university cafeterias and high-end restaurants.
But it isn’t a miracle on North 31st Street. Hundred Acre is an idea so good it’s like a diamond. And like a diamond, everybody is going to want one – a Hundred Acre Farm in each neighborhood to provide food and vitality while the neighbors who work there build community together.
This is an original article written for Agri-View, a Lee Enterprises agricultural publication based in Madison, Wisconsin. Visit AgriView.com for more information.
Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd.