by Jess Wolfe
“The idea of bringing the production of fresh wholesome food hyperlocal to communities is really the mission,” Brian Harris said.
Retiree Brian Harris has been growing two acres worth of crops inside a shipping container in downtown Grand Rapids ever since June of 2017. His aspiration to grow using hydroponics stemmed from a curiosity about indoor urban agriculture.
“I had to self-educate myself . I’m not a farmer, I come from the steel industry and furniture industry.”
Brian started experimenting in his basement, learning different ways to grow hydroponically, and aeroponically.
“I got hooked because there are so many interesting aspects of both biology, and science, and technology associated with it.”
Brian came across a producer of a container farm out of Boston, Massachusetts called Freight Farms. This company produces customized container farms suitable for all climates, even extreme environments, such as Alaska and Saudi Arabia where fresh, nutritious vegetables never used to be accessible.
“I thought it would be a good way to introduce Grand Rapids to what the idea of indoor urban agriculture is all about.”
Soil-free, pesticide-free, low waste, low cost, and using only 5% of the water that traditional soil farming uses.
There is no need to use herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides because of the controlled environment with no pests or weeds. The solution given to the plants includes the basic minerals that plants normally find in soil. These nutrient elements are water soluble with zero chemicals or synthetics.
“I think it’s important to grow food that is organic. Everything stems from what you eat. When you eat healthy, everything is generally better,” Grandville High School Environmental Science student Madison Humphry said.
Plants don’t see light the same way humans see light. They only see the blue and red end of the spectrum.
“We don’t waste any energy producing light for them that is not useful.”
LED technology has changed the industry dramatically because they are cool to the touch and don’t generate a lot of heat, meaning they can hang close to the plants without putting heat stress on them. It is also 65% more efficient than typical lighting. Brian runs the LED lighting throughout the night. Electricity is cheaper at night, thus saving money.
Everything is controlled through Brian’s phone. The LED lights and cooling system can be turned on and off. The nutrient levels can be adjusted. The only thing Brian cannot do from his phone is transplant seedlings and harvest.
“I think that what Brian is doing is pretty cutting edge and really new. I think in general there’s an understanding that urban agriculture is beneficial for our community. We want easily accessible, local food options that are healthy for us and create job opportunities and all the sorts of things Brian is looking to develop through his project,” Leison of the Urban Agriculture Committee Catherine Zietse said.
Food waste is an emerging problem in society right now. Traditionally in a field harvest, plants are cut at the stem.
“And at that instant they are on the dying end of life as opposed to the thriving end of life.”
This means shelf life for a field grown crop is very short and much of it ends up getting thrown out because it is not consumed quick enough. To reduce or potentially eliminate the issue of food waste, Brian is able to harvest his plants with the roots still attached, meaning it is still alive. The shelf life of hydroponically grown plants is much longer than field grown crops. Another aspect of reducing food waste, comes from the controlled environment, allowing all crops to ‘look good’ and appear consistently uniform. This means the consumer is less likely to throw out oddly shaped produce.
“An ugly carrot is an ugly carrot, but it still tastes the same.”
“Our motto here is ‘sowing seeds daily,’ and so it’s not literally just sowing seeds, it’s sowing seeds of knowledge, education, and health. Our mission is not just to run this as a business but to actually impact the community and create jobs.”
365 days a year, every seven weeks marks a new harvest.
“We can grow specialty crops that most farmers don’t want to get involved with because they’re trying to grow large volumes of highly consumed product, like romaine, iceberg, and those common things. The idea here is that the world is full of great tasting lettuce and greens that we just don’t get the chance to get because no one is growing them.”
Current zoning ordinances prevent putting a farm next to a school, grocery store, or in a vacant neighborhood lot. With a struggle to get a permit for the shipping container in downtown Grand Rapids and battle to convince the city of what he is doing, Brian recently testified at city hall, before the Urban Agriculture Committee. Many people are unsure about what hydroponics really is.
“Grand Rapids will be in a learning curve and I’m hoping to help them learn.”
Brian explained we’re going to have to work with Grand Rapids on bridging the understanding that as a footprint this is not incompatible with neighborhoods. There’s not a lot of light, noise, or biomass pollution.
“On behalf of the Urban Agriculture Committee, we are completely for what Brian is doing in terms of bringing agriculture to the hyperlocal area,” Catherine Zietse said.
As of right now, no one else is growing hydroponic food in Grand Rapids. This is a big reason why the city is hesitant to adopt this new way of growing.
Restaurants and chefs have come to the farm and have tasted the products and seen the process. They are all interested in having the produce in their restaurants and grocery stores. His first delivery to restaurants around Grand Rapids will occur at the end of November.
Looking further into the future,
Brian will only be operating out of his current shipping container for about two years because the ultimate goal is not to run this as a business out of a container but to actually scale up to a larger ten thousand square foot facility. The ten thousand square foot facility will yield the equivalent of about 60-65 acres of crop.
“At that scale, we’re talking real jobs and intentionally hyperlocal jobs in the inner-city and the intent is that it has an impact on the economics and the opportunities in that neighborhood from an employment standpoint.”
Hydroponic farming not only has the potential to scale up but also to scale down, where it can be put into a biology lab or into a classroom, creating a curriculum around the biology of plants, the science of chemistry, or even engineering and innovation. The opportunities for new learning are endless.
Senior Madison Humphrey from Grandville High School’s Environmental Science class is working on a scaled-down hydroponic farming project. Her goal is to provide 5 families with low-cost organic food. If the trend of student-led hydroponic farming continues, it has the power to transform many communities for the better.
Hydroponic indoor farming is emerging all over the world, with the controlled environment solving many environmental, health, and inner-city problems.
“There’s a value on local, there’s a value on fresh, there’s a value on organics.”
Brian Harris is starting an innovative, eye-opening movement in Grand Rapids with a lot of potential to grow and transform our city to an even more sustainable place.
“The main thing it’s really doing is bringing consumable leafy greens and vegetables hyperlocal for the benefit of health, wellness, and general happiness. “