Local business aims to create sustainable food, jobsWritten by Amanda Tindall | | email@example.com
Ninety-eight percent of produce consumed by Toledoans comes from more than 1,800 miles away. Meanwhile, the city has an unemployment rate of 5.7 percent.
When Toledo resident Jim Bloom worked in vocational rehabilitation, assisting in job searches for those who needed it, he realized Toledo-grown produce was an area with huge potential for job growth.
Traditional farming — growing plants in soil and using sunlight for photosynthesis — had one big limitation in creating sustainable, profit-producing crops in Ohio: winter.
Of the states in the continental United States, Ohio receives among the least amount of sunlight in winter months, Bloom said, and even greenhouses are energy-inefficient.
“I discovered that the one huge growth area was food production, if it could be done right,” Bloom said. “For four years, I’ve been researching the best ways to do this and how to do this. What I wanted to be done in other cities was being done in the Netherlands, and I wanted to know what they’re doing in the Netherlands that we’re not doing here.”
After researching the technology used in Europe and the Middle East, Bloom found a way to modify the energy technology for use in the U.S. He started Sustainable Local Foods in 2012 and set up shop on Hill Avenue.
Mayor D. Michael Collins, who was recently introduced to the mission and technology of Sustainable Local Foods, said the company can offer hope and opportunity to the community.
“I’m a firm believer that this is a new venture for this area in the agricultural industry,” Collins said. “I see it as a potential business niche to complement all the other things that are going on here. The science and the technology provides the growth of produce 365 days a year. When you figure our position in the marketplace, I could very easily see us gravitating [toward becoming] a major supplier to this corridor of the United States. From a business niche standpoint, this is just the beginning. It’s another footprint in Northwest Ohio; it’s a huge opportunity for business growth.”
By adapting the technology used in other countries, Sustainable Local Foods aims to produce 150 jobs in the Toledo area in the next five years. Each half-acre of growing space requires 167 hours of work each week, which means Toledoans can buy locally and organically while supporting Toledo workers.
Sunless, soilless growth
With LED lights specifically designed to induce photosynthesis and narrow, white trays that hold the plants in a constant stream of water and nutrients, the indoor gardens of Sustainable Local Foods look incredibly futuristic.
The method of growing plants in a stream of nutrients, but without soil, is known as hydroponics. The water with nutrients flows through the trays, the plants soak up the nutrients and water, and the excess water flows to a barrel below. Not only are the gardens of Sustainable Local Foods energy-efficient, they are also efficient with other resources, said lead grower Bryan Ellis.
By using hydroponics, Ellis said, they can use less water and keep a consistent amount of nutrients flowing to the plants. Hydroponics uses an eighth of the water that would be used in a typical, soil-based garden.
“Each one of these trays has this cute little thing dripping nutrients, a very light flow of nutrients, through the system,” Ellis said. “It flows slightly downhill to a drain in the back, all the way down the 200 feet down this garden.”
The nutrients are split up into two barrels with a control system that allows the growers to decide how much nutrient-rich water the plants receive.
Each row of lettuce is planted a week apart. Heads of lettuce are spread out from the smallest to largest, growing larger and larger down the row.
The garden can produce 3,000 heads of lettuce a week, many of which go to local stores.
One of the major problems Bloom said he faced was adapting the energy systems used in the Netherlands. However, by using the energy-efficient LED lights, the plants can photosynthesize, even inside.
Lead grower Danny Taylor said the lights produce red, blue and white rays of light, all of which are in the spectrum of light the plants need to grow best.
“Those lights are LED; they’re very energy-efficient,” Ellis said. “They allow us to do this year-round, so we can grow lettuce in the middle of winter.
“We could grow these crops without any natural light at all,” Taylor said. “We’ll actually be doing that in the not-too-distant future because it’s such a heat-sensitive crop. If we could get ourselves into an insulated situation, provide all the plants’ needs with the LED lighting, then we could basically produce a perfect crop every time. Eliminate all the environmental factors that are different every day, the amount of sun and the amount of light.”
The crops at Sustainable Local Foods are all cold crops, which means they do best at cooler temperatures than other plants. Each garden has a temperature control system, used to ensure the gardens will not get too warm. Because the Toledo garden at 3901 Hill Ave. is in a greenhouse, not entirely shielded from light, the plants receive more nutrients during the hours when the sun is hottest.
Even inside, plants can develop biological problems and diseases, but Sustainable Local Foods grows organically and does not use any chemical pesticides on its plants.
“We use organic pesticides such as ladybugs,” Ellis said. “That is what we refer to as our IMP, which is integrated pest management. We rely on critters that eat other critters. So for every problem, there’s a solution that’s natural that doesn’t require us spraying.”
Their main type of lettuce is a natural hybrid product called buttercrunch lettuce, developed purposely for indoor growth. But it is not genetically modified, Taylor said, because genetically modified lettuce does not exist. In addition to the buttercrunch lettuce, they grow basil and romaine lettuce and will add tomatoes next month.
Sustainable Local Foods CEO Nicholas Bloom said the business plans on opening three more organic, indoor gardens as soon as the buildings are secured.
Sustainable jobs, incomes
The garden is set up in a greenhouse, but Jim Bloom said because greenhouses are not energy-efficient, they hope to have completely indoor gardens in the future. Each half-acre garden requires three full-time and three part-time workers. Sustainable Local Foods is quickly expanding, and Ellis said the company aims to increase its growing space by a half acre every month.
“We’re a for-profit corporation,” Bloom said. “We want to be an efficient, affordable food producer, to grow in market share, to create more jobs in the city in areas that need revitalization. We want people to live in areas that they choose to live in. We’ll only place gardens in areas that have a bus line, so people who don’t have an opportunity for transportation can get to work, people who have been incarcerated, veterans with PTSD, and those in need of jobs.”
While applicants with a college education would not be excluded, a degree is not required, Taylor said.
“The fact is, even though this is reasonably high-tech, with time and effort and good training, people without a college education could actually run a system like this,” Taylor said.
Jim Bloom, Nicholas Bloom, Taylor, and Ellis all said the real mission of Sustainable Local Foods is not, in fact, food, but bringing jobs and hope to the community.
“We’re a for-profit company that acts like a nonprofit,” Ellis said. “So that’s what’s very unique about this. We hire individuals who might have barriers to employment and we start them out above living wage. So our starting pay is $11 an hour.”
The mission and motto of Sustainable Local Foods is to provide “food, opportunities and hope.”
“We also want to provide opportunities for people to own their own growing space,” Taylor said. “If people have the aptitude and the desire, we can actually help finance a place like this, and their family could run that place. We could sell the produce, and teach them how to run the place effectively. We’ll tell them, ‘If you can grow this, this and this for us, we’ll take it all and sell it.’”
If a family owned a garden like this, Taylor said, they could earn about $40,000 each year. By selling all the produce, the cost of technology is quickly recouped.
The produce grown in Toledo is mainly sold at the Toledo Farmers’ Market in Downtown and other area farmers markets. It is also used by many local restaurants, including Swig in Perrysburg, Ellis said.
“We try to keep our produce in Toledo,” Taylor said. “We’re selling some of what we grow in Detroit, but really, we don’t want to do that. We want to sell everything we grow in Toledo in Toledo, and basically we’ve got a Detroit market.”
“But we want our Detroit team to grow for Detroit,” Ellis said. “We want sustainable local food to be exactly that in every city that it’s in. We want it to supply its own community, help its own community, and hire from its own community. I like to think of it less as distribution of produce and more like distribution of opportunity.”
Taylor, like Jim Bloom, was previously involved in a field with goals similar of Sustainable Local Foods. He worked in urban missions in Brisbane, Australia, and came to the United States to study hydroponics. He said he and his wife felt God was calling them back to the United States to serve.
“What I thought would take me five years to get set up took me no time at all,” Taylor said. “Jim [Bloom] had already been working on it for about that much time.”
In April, Alan Halterman joined the Sustainable Local Foods team as a grower. Halterman studied in the urban agriculture program at Owens Community College.
“They just ended the [urban agriculture] program,” Halterman said. “It’s very sad news. Everyone’s pretty disappointed with that. With all the new jobs coming up in the industry, we need more graduates, but the closest place you can go is Ohio State, Michigan or Hocking. That’s too far away for people who have a job.”
To train youth in agriculture, Sustainable Local Foods works heavily with the Lucas County Youth Treatment Center (YTC) and the Toledo juvenile courts. Ellis said many of the youth that work with them have either come through the YTC program, which works with adjudicated youth to help them re-enter society and the workforce, or are court appointed.
“Our response would be to create an educational program here connected with the work that we’re doing with the juvenile courts, etc.,” Taylor said. “You don’t need a degree to do this, but education is necessary. We have graduates like Alan, like Bryan. I have a certificate in aquaponics, but between the three of us, we should be able to pull something together.”
Halterman said Jose Soto and Derek Hawkins, who was one of the first employees, are two of the youth who have come through Sustainable Local Foods’ training and are now an indispensable part of the team.
“They’re actually brought up through the YTC program from Toledo GROWs,” Halterman said. “So they’re youth born and raised around here. They were kind of reintroduced to society through gardening. Jose and Derek are shining stars of that program. They’ve come out and now they’re leaders in the community and are leading other groups that they were once a part of.”
Hawkins shared his story of being a juvenile in the CITE program (Community Integration for Training and Employment), as he placed new plants in white nutrient trays. He began working with Toledo GROWs, an outreach program at the Toledo Botanical Garden, where he came into contact with Ellis and Soto. When Toledo GROWs started reducing their number of workers, Hawkins ended up at Sustainable Local Foods.
“Toledo GROWs opened my eyes to a lot of things and taught me a lot about agriculture,” Hawkins said. “I love this type of field, greenhouse, farming. I love the people that come around. I just love the feel, it has a homey feel to it.”
Madeenah Robinson, another young worker, was home-schooled and just graduated from high school. She began training through the Youth Empowerment Program at United North and began her work at Sustainable Local Foods less than a week later.
“It’s been a good experience,” Robinson said, as she planted seeds. “We plant and seed and harvest and you have to make sure that the water’s good. You have to clean up, but really that’s not my specialty. There’s a lot of things I like about it.”
While Robinson doesn’t plan on staying in agriculture permanently, she said she would enjoy doing something like it again.
Ellis said the thing young workers talk about most is how the plants always look different, and that they really take pride in the work that they do.
“There’s a lot of people I used to work with that now work here,” Hawkins said. “It’s really not a workplace; it’s a family.”
Taylor and Ellis called each other brothers as they shared their passion for Sustainable Local Foods.
“There’s a need for charity, but it’s not the answer,” Taylor said. “In the short term, we need people to have food, have jobs, but in the long term, we need to create opportunities for them to be empowered.”
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