Hydroponic Farming, an Unexpected Innovation

Hydroponics Pilot Header

December 4, 2017 By: Bob Branham - Director of Produce Strategy Category: SHH News

When I joined Second Harvest Heartland in 2012, the idea was to develop new programs that would allow us to source some of the millions of pounds of surplus produce available in Minnesota each harvest season. What began with a focus on local produce has turned into an investment in programs and partnerships, across all sectors, covering multiple states, and has resulted in a growth in the pounds of produce distributed from 25 million pounds to 35 million pounds in 2017.

It’s been a great few years and we plan to continue to build on this success working in collaboration with our local growers and other community partners. However, we’ve recently started conversations about our position as a food bank in the food production supply chain and on the nutritional value of produce. These conversations have led us to an unexpected innovation.

With the support of our local and regional farming community, we have access to sweet corn, potatoes, onions, apples, melons and other great produce varieties to distribute to our local food shelves. One important category of produce we have less access to, and one of the most nutritionally dense, is leafy greens.

The cost of transportation to source leafy greens from southern states is prohibitive, and the short shelf life of varieties like kale and greens limits the programs we are able to get these foods to while they are still fresh. But this is the type of produce the individuals we serve through our programs, food shelf, and meal program partners want.

So, we asked ourselves, what if we positioned ourselves at a different point in the food supply chain? What if we became a producer?

Hydroponic Farming Stats GraphicIt is in the spirit of these questions and Second Harvest Heartland’s value of innovation that I am excited to share that we are embarking on a new journey - hydroponic farming! While food banks across the country often have community gardens or even their own small farms, Second Harvest Heartland will be the first food bank in the national Feeding America network to install a vertical farm inside of our warehouse. The farm will allow us to grow kale, greens, lettuce, and other leafy greens packed with nutrition year-round.

As of early December, we will be the proud new owners of a Leafy Green Machine ™, a 40 foot long by 8 feet long shipping container converted into a vegetable farm.

This one container will grow the equivalent of 1.8 acres of leafy greens each year. The farm will run 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

Freight Farm Exterior

I am grateful for individuals and other partners that step up and support our work, so I asked our donor  and new business partner in this endeavor, Murad Velani, what inspired him to form a joint venture with Second Harvest Heartland on hydroponic farming.

“My personal passion of finding innovative ways to create sustainable, social enterprise business models that are at the intersection of technology, water, food, energy and sustainability make this partnership a terrific match. I'm excited to work with the entire Second Harvest Heartland team to begin participating upstream in the food production supply chain to supply hyper-local, sustainable, nutritious greens to the food insecure ecosystem," said Velani.

Freight Farm Interior

This is just one exciting entry point into environmentally sustainable farming that will immediately provide us with a new source of healthy foods to distribute.

But it’s not just about getting more nutritious food to our hungry neighbors; the hydroponic farm will provide a way for us to engage with our community like never before. There will be a number of opportunities for our community to help us plant and harvest crops each week. We are particularly excited to work with local schools to develop an education curriculum, helping students learn more about where food comes from and the importance of nutrition in their diet.

We will be sharing more about our journey in hydroponic farming here on the blog and across our social media channels. I invite you to follow along, learn more about our produce strategy, and get involved.


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Submitted by Chris B. at: May 8, 2018
How much energy does it take to heat the trailer in MN in the winter? I assume the lighting is low power with low heat output.
Submitted by curlywoman at: January 3, 2018
Are you also using the method where fish are used to provide nutrients ? I know it is being done here in St.Paul,MN. .
Submitted by GMN at: January 2, 2018
If we go to hydroponics we should go further to aquaponics. For some producers they can go to high tunnels combined with low tunnels and be able to harvest greens all year long. Further Second Harvest should start working with Good Acre to more efficiently move food from producers to needy consumers.
Submitted by Gail at: January 2, 2018
Good to see the creative juices are still flowing, Bob! Keep up the good work.
Submitted by Connie at: December 9, 2017
What a cool project! That's one way to change the game, not just move the pieces around.
Submitted by MoMiller at: December 8, 2017
This is a fantastic opportunity Bob, congratulations and I look forward to seeing more info! Foodlink
Submitted by Peg at: December 6, 2017
Great ideas! I especially like the community involvement with this project and the development of curriculum for students!!

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