Hydroponic farms bring fresh, local produce to rural Wisconsin community

By Mary Starr

Living in the middle of farming country doesn’t necessarily mean an individual has easy access to fresh produce. In fact, many families that reside near farms are actually living in what is defined as a food desert. Children may not have access to healthy lunch choices, and when fresh options are available, they are cost-prohibitive.

To combat hunger in seven rural counties throughout Wisconsin — and pilot a model for reducing rural food insecurity nationwide — two organizations decided to look locally for solutions. They turned to community centers, schools, childcare centers, senior centers, and other local civic nonprofits by providing community partners with the tools and skills to grow their own healthy, fresh produce. Food access is particularly challenging in rural areas where up to 20.6% of children are food insecure and 96% of families are income-eligible for nutrition-based programs. These challenges have been exacerbated by rising food insecurity amid COVID-19.

Marshfield Clinic Health System and its Center for Community Health Advancement launched this initiative in 2019. The core pillar of the program is to bring the power of fresh food production directly to schools, food pantries, and meal programs through Flex Farm technology.

Flex Farms are vertical hydroponic farming systems that produce significant quantities of fresh food and are designed to fit small indoor spaces. The units include an energy-efficient LED light tower, submersible pump, grower toolkit, and starter supply kit. Each unit enables the owner to grow over 3,400 plants annually.

The clinic had been working with Fork Farms to place approximately 35 Flex Farms in community locations where the food can be used by school children, seniors, and other community-based organizations.

This initiative allows people with minimal growing experience to produce and own the production of their own healthy foods. It provides hyperlocal access to food production at a scale that can not only feed individual families but supplement entire school lunch programs and pantries with healthy produce.

Jay Schrader, Marshfield Clinic Health vice president of community health is excited about the initiative: “We are about helping people and learned early on about Fork Farms and their impact. We are very enthused about the program and after a year of results decided to work together to help our rural communities with hunger relief, the future is exciting.”

The hospital’s community health needs assessment and the Center for Community Health Advancement both drive work like this at Marshfield Clinic. But in this case, Flex Farms is a center-driven initiative.

A recent survey of MCHS Flex Farm recipients indicates the farms are being primarily used to grow leafy greens, but some responses included green beans, basil, oregano, cilantro, and snap peas. The same survey provided information on what the produce would be used for and in addition to the expected answer of consuming at the facility (school, after school programs, senior centers, etc.), some organizations said the plan was to sell the produce for fundraising, donate to local shelters, and also send produce home with students.

When asked what the benefits are from the Flex Farm implementations, responses varied depending on the setting:

  • Student engagement
  • Healthy produce options for consumption
  • Provide fresh produce to other community organizations
  • Expanding knowledge and appreciation of fresh produce

Lake Holcombe School implemented a Flex Farm through this program just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and since then has added two more units due to students’ interest in the growing process as well as general enthusiasm for the fresh produce added to school lunches.

Kent Dorney, agriculture and grades 6–8 science teacher at Lake Holcombe School explained that they installed a Flex Farm about a year ago. Teachers and students harvested the initial planting of lettuce shortly after. The students were excited to be involved in producing fresh leafy greens which were included in lunches by the cafeteria. This excitement set the program off to a great start.

The success of the initial installation has resulted in the addition of two more units and the expansion of plantings to include fresh herbs such as lemon basil, cilantro, and thyme as well as more fresh vegetables like green beans and cherry tomatoes.

The school already had a small greenhouse, but now the Flex Farms supplement the start of seedlings for the school garden and enable students to produce more during the limited outdoor growing season in the upper Midwest.

With the growing student interest around the Flex Farm units, Kent has crafted a semester class on hydroponics agriculture with five students in varying grades. This approach continues to feed the interest the students express in the process of growing and agriculture. The students involved in the Flex Farm and in Kent’s class get hands-on experience in transplanting, harvesting, soil testing, and more. The introduction of the Flex Farms and Kent’s ability to encourage and involve students in the activity has resulted in curiosity and participation by students outside of the core class group.

The program enables the group to harvest fresh produce every two weeks or so to include in the school lunches. The produce is a hit with students and goes fast at these lunches. It is usually completely consumed in a day or two.

In addition to the implementation of Flex Farms at the school, Kent has allocated additional grant funding to provide smaller hydroponic units for home use by some students which continues to expand and encourage the growing and consumption of fresh, local produce.

Forks Farm continues to improve the Flex Farm concept and is on the fourth generation of units. In addition to the hardware, Fork Farms provides a variety of other tools and resources to support users. By implementing a Flex Farm, organizations can provide engagement points for teachers, health workers, and nonprofit employees to educate and inspire children and adults to make healthy food choices. This includes combining the farming systems with educational programming on healthy eating, innovation, and sustainability along with assisting in the development of key social and life skills.

“We believe that growing your own food promotes healthy eating habits and a close connection to the living world around us. When placed in schools, health care facilities, and nonprofits, Flex Farms empowers people to engage in hyperlocal food production and breaks down barriers to fresh food access.” Alex Tyink Fork Farms president.

By embedding Flex Farms for food production within community spaces, pairing with learning opportunities, and fostering a culture of local production, Marshfield Clinic Health System is advancing a replicable and scalable model for improving food access and holistic health in local communities. To learn more, please contact Greenhealth Exchange Partner, Fork Farms.

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