Disrupting Big Agriculture Means Taking Your Crops Indoors: West Mich. Growers Show Us How
BY LAUREN FAY CARLSON, MANAGING EDITOR | THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2019
Here in Michigan, “[We are] forced into a controlled agriculture environment,” says Revolution Farms co-founder/master grower Ben Kant. Kent refers to the both fertile and challenging growing conditions of the West Michigan climate, which produces beautiful crops—and unpredictable weather.
And here in the upper midwest, we take advantage of a bounty of local crops—when they’re in season. Of course, summer produce like blueberries, cherries, and asparagus, and fall staples like pumpkins and apples supply our thirst for local produce. But Michiganders — like those in many other states that experience the four seasons — are often left sourcing produce from states like California and Arizona in the cold weather months and beyond, increasing the time and distance our food spends traveling from farm to plate, and also decreasing our choices.
To combat this downside in big agriculture, West Michigan farmers are bringing their crops indoors, taking advantage of new technologies to harvest a variety of produce year-round. With new techniques like hydroponics and aquaponics — as well as carefully curated hoop houses — these futuristic farmers are closing the gap for fresh, home-grown, diverse produce, and redefining farm-to-fork for a new generation.
In Caledonia, produce and fish live in harmony. At Revolution Farms, Kant and his staff utilize aquaponics, or “Creating a living, healthy, harmonious ecosystem that produces amazing quality food,” he says. In a 50,000 square foot green house, Revolution staff grow tilapia naturally—without hormones or antibiotics—and allow them to do what fish do: swim, eat, and excrete. “Ultimately the fish are creating nutrients,” says Kant, who then utilizes a mechanical filtration system to break down the fertilizer into a nutrient-rich solution for the farm’s four different types of greens.
Using this method, Kant and his team are harvesting both fish and greens daily, delivering their products to Spartan Stores and local VanEerden food distributors on a daily basis. “We provide this amazing value of being able to harvest fresh and send out this product to our customer within 24 hours … from the farm to the plate,” says Kant. “It’s really a miracle.”
While Kant has scaled aquaponics to a large operation off a country road, produce is also growing in the heart of Grand Rapids’ Westside, in a humble shipping container labeled “Green Collar Farms.”
After selling his stake in his steel business, Brian Harris semi-retired and became entranced with hydroponics. After getting a great deal on a vacant lot across from Rockford Construction, Harris began experimenting with vertical growing that requires zero soil.
Utilizing a nutrient-rich solution and taking advantage of the dense, cubed (versus linear, on a traditional farm) squares in the shipping container, Harris grows greens like arugula, salanova, and wasabina, and harvests every seven to eight weeks. Starting off small with uncommon varieties, Harris enjoys introducing locals to the diversity of Green Collar's produce.
Most of all, “For me the most fascinating aspect [of hydroponics] … is to disrupt the food distribution system,” says Harris. He notes that the U.S.’s current agriculture system relies on shipped produce from only a handful of popular locations, forcing the market to rely on just a few, hardy plants that can survive the journey. “[Most people] can’t name more than two types of lettuce,” says Harris. “What bothers me most about our distribution system is it’s built for food, not for people,” he adds.
By sourcing to local restaurants like Reserve and The Sovengard who ascribe to seasonal menu items, Green Wagon Farm and CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) in Ada is also disrupting the nationwide food distribution system. “I don't see many cons about agriculture in West Michigan,” says Farm Manager Heather Anderson, who co-founded Green Wagon in 2010 with her husband Chad Anderson. “We actually enjoy the slightly slower winter months, but still appreciate that we have work that we like to do during that time," she adds.
Carefully cultivating their crops in specially-designed structures, the Andersons and their staff are able to shelter their crops year-round from harsh winds, ice, and rain, as well as trap and regulate heat, much like in a greenhouse.
We grow different crops in different areas according to how cold tolerant they are," says Anderson. "Our most cold-tolerant vegetables like collards and asian greens are grown in what we call caterpillar tunnels. These are unheated 15-foot wide hoops covered with plastic. We have the same type of structure, but larger called hoop houses. These are also unheated, except for the sunshine, and house our more tender salad mixes and lettuces," she adds.
“Our produce in the winter is made up of roots and greens,” says Anderson. “The roots are common and many farms have them throughout the winter. It's the greens that are less common to find. You may see kale and spinach here and there, but the lettuce mixes, asian greens, and herbs are what we do differently.”
It’s this dedication to doing things a little bit differently that inspires these West Michigan growers to produce crops for their communities all year long. Instead of romaine from California, Grand Rapidians can sample arugula or spinach from their own backyard (or parking lot), reinvesting in their community and ultimately consuming a healthier, more sustainable meal. For Harris and others, this is the future of American agriculture.
Hoping to someday scale his hydroponic operation to a 10,000 sq. ft. warehouse in the downtown area, Harris has decided to slow down his business for the next year to focus on research and the next step. “Crops will only grow as fast as crops will grow,” he says.
For all of these growers, the effort to cultivate this local produce, even in the harsh, West Michigan winter, is worth it. "It's a lot more work growing vegetables in the winter, but allows us to employ people and feed people year-round," says Anderson.
Photos courtesy of Revolution Farms.