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Making Most of Vacant Building, Urban Farming Org Hopes to Create Viable Indoor Food Production Model

September 21, 2012 |

With the increasing rise in popularity of the local food movement in cities across the country, many people are getting creative about the spaces they use in order to bring fresh food to urban communities. Rooftop and community gardens have become major trends in recent years, but some people are thinking beyond outdoor spaces to include buildings that might otherwise continue to sit vacant.

FoodChain is one such organization that is thinking outside of the box, or garden plot, bringing an educational and demonstration facility—that will be teaching aquaponics, food processing and more—to the diverse downtown community of Lexington, Ky. The organization makes its home in the former Rainbo Bread Factory building, which operated downtown as early as the late 1800s and stayed in business for about 100 years. The 90,000-square-foot building had been vacant for five years until last summer when it welcomed West Sixth Brewing Company, and shortly thereafter, FoodChain.

As aspiring farmers and others in the Lexington area seemingly have more access to abandoned warehouses than flat, affordable farmland, Rebecca Self, executive director of FoodChain, thought one of these spaces would be a perfect fit for the organization. “Part of what FoodChain can offer is a way of stretching the expectations for agriculture by modeling the unexpected,” she explains. “We wanted to show that agricultural methods could and should be adapted to take advantage of uniquely available resources. In an urban setting, we often have a plethora of underutilized warehouse spaces, and yet these spaces are not typically considered assets, particularly for agriculture. By showing that these spaces actually can be part of a local food system, both for production, and processing and preparation, we can change the lens through which we evaluate land’s potential.”

FoodChain’s indoor farm will eventually hold about 15,000 gallons of water, including six 250-gallon fish tanks and four 4-by-40 foot grow beds. The organization estimates that its system will yield approximately 1,500 pounds of fish, including tilapia and freshwater prawns, and 12,000 heads of lettuce, herbs and other greens per year.

Self says FoodChain is also in the planning stages of cultivating mushrooms in a 5,000-square-foot basement space and constructing grow beds and hoop houses on its 10,000-square-foot rooftop. In the future, the non-profit expects to grow a larger variety of vegetables and fruits from its rooftop, says Self. And, it has about 4,000 square feet put aside for food production and processing within their kitchen incubator and retail space, which will produce a variety of value-added products and prepared meals. “The capacity of the foods produced is really limited only by the imagination of the food entrepreneurs who utilize the space,” says Self.

FoodChain will sell the food that it grows primarily to area restaurants, and possibly grocery stores. “Because our food will be grown indoors, we have a year-round growing season, which makes us an ideal provider for restaurants wanting to use local foods,” Self explains. “We have already established a relationship with a new fish and chips venue that will open immediately next to us. They will be a major purchaser of our products year round and will help complete the cycle from production to processing in our local food system.”

Deciding whether to organize as a for-profit or non-profit is something FoodChain kicked around for a little while during its startup. While the non-profit plans to target statewide producers and to advocate for them to diversify production, education and demonstration will be at the forefront of FoodChain’s mission. Finding these things to be the most critical needs within sustainable, local food communities, Self felt that establishing as a non-profit was only natural for the organization.

“So much of the education in this area today is costly and targeted at people who are already interested in this model,” she says. “We’d like to expand that reach to people who have never heard of it, who may just be curious, who want to try this on a smaller scale.”

Currently, FoodChain is soliciting donations for the construction of their large aquaponics system (it currently operates a small aquaponic system), and has already received 75 percent of the funding they need, which came from local sources, many of whom are individual donors, explains Self, who also says they will have a strong return on investment to cover costs. “One of the main reasons we began with aquaponics was because we believe it offers an excellent return on investment, since it involves relatively small startup capital and yields products with a high market-value,” says Self. “Long term, it is our intention that the sale of the products produced at FoodChain will come close, if not entirely, to covering the operational costs. As we grow, we anticipate that grant funding will help build future expansions.”

With the West Sixth Brewing Company as one of its neighbors, FoodChain has set up a sustainable partnership with the brewery, in which spent grain will be used for fish feed and as a mushroom growing medium. And, other personal sustainability goals sit high on Self’s priority list, as she utilizes a cooperative, integrated approach. “As a former science teacher and sustainability coordinator, my personal model of sustainability has always been well represented by the three-legged stool: one of economic, one of community and one of environment,” she explains.

Equally important to Self is diversity, as she does not believe there is one model for sustainable agriculture. “A truly sustainable food system must involve a multitude of production methods, each striving to find the balance of sustainability,” she explains.

With its nontraditional farming operation and mission, Self finds that one of FoodChain’s biggest challenges is describing what exactly the non-profit is setting out to accomplish. “Because it is so out-of-the-box and nontraditional, it takes a lot of education up front to even explain the vision of what we see as possible for the local food economy,” she explains.

In addition, Self says that regulations have been a hurdle, because most city and state regulations are not designed to address indoor farming. In addition, like many other non-profits, obtaining funding has been a time-intensive process for FoodChain, she says.

But, working together within a local food network has made these hurdles less challenging, says Self. “We have found that successful partnerships and collaborative relationships have been instrumental in overcoming obstacles,” she explains. “Without these relationships, it would be impossible for FoodChain to succeed, and they represent a cornerstone of what FoodChain is: an organization built by and for the community.”

This networking, which is proving vital to FoodChain’s success, is also one way in which the non-profit hopes to get more people interested in what it is doing and to encourage others to join in the local food movement. “We’d love to educate and inspire others to start their own for-profit businesses and use the knowledge we share with them to create their own viable and sustainable businesses,” Self says.

As for the future, FoodChain has its work cutout for itself. “We are anxious to get started on the construction of our larger aquaponics system and are very hopeful that folks will continue to be inspired by the vision and contribute accordingly,” explains Self. “While we know we have an uphill battle in education, we are encouraged by signs we see of change, both with interest in local food but also a growing desire to reconnect with one another. In our opinion, food represents the perfect meeting ground, and we look forward to providing the proverbial kitchen table to gather around.”

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