Hydrating the Food Desert

UW-Green Bay scientists partner with innovative thinkers to revolutionize the food economy in Green Bay

The Farmory in downtown Green Bay is a “farm with a social mission,” in the words of Program Director, Alex Smith. The historic armory turned “farmory” is being used to demonstrate to the community how the centuries old practice of farming can address the growing problem of food security in many of today’s urban areas.

Unknown to many, downtown Green Bay is in the heart of a “food desert” — a designation given to areas where residents are anywhere from a half-mile to a mile away from a grocery store that stocks fresh produce. Through the collaborative work and knowledge of food professionals — community organizations and UW-Green Bay experts — water, food and more are making a return to the desert.

Urban farming

People who live in food deserts are at a much higher risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity because of their limited access to fresh food. It is a vicious cycle in need of a solution.

The seeds of The Farmory project were planted in part by the work of Will Allen, Executive Director of Milwaukee’s Growing Power; and James Pandl ’12 (Interdisciplinary Studies) and ’15 (Masters of Management) who refined the operation of The Farmory’s growing system and who serves as the lead farmer. Pandl has long been involved in the Wisconsin food industry, most notably for his innovative zero-waste restaurants in the Milwaukee area.

Using aquaponics, the combination of aquaculture (growing fish) and hydroponics (soil less growing of plants) Allen and Pandl set out to prove that you do not need a lot of acreage or money to grow good food in a small space.

The experiment is working. Based on a traditional aquaponics system, fresh greens and market-sized yellow perch are growing abundantly at The Farmory since early 2016 in a fascinating closed-loop growing process. Perch are kept in fresh water and their waste is collected. A nutrient-rich slurry including waste from the yellow perch is then pumped through a system that uses gravity to water-planted flats filled with soil and seeds for greens. Water is “cleaned” as it filters through the greens, then directed back into the fish tank. The result: amazing tasting greens and fresh water that provides a much-needed bio-secure habitat for yellow perch to thrive and grow.

Professors Deb Pearson, Patrick Forsythe and the Farmory's Program Director Alex Smith are working on hyudrating a "food desert," in downtown Green Bay.

Professors Deb Pearson, Patrick Forsythe and the Farmory’s Program Director Alex Smith are working on hyudrating a “food desert,” in downtown Green Bay.

University answers community call for help

As The Farmory team started work on their long-term vision, they realized developing and managing a fish hatchery was outside their expertise. They contacted UW-Green Bay’s Patrick Forsythe, an associate professor of Biology, for assistance. “I was excited to sit down and help envision what this hatchery could look like,” says Forsythe.

Not only will UW-Green Bay scientists help develop the state’s first commercial, bio-secure yellow perch fingerling hatchery at The Farmory, they are also creating a market for farm-raised perch via aquaponics techniques. “This collaboration brings people together with a unique skill set to grow fish and produce in a different way,” says Forsythe.

And what about those greens? The Cannery Public Market, located just across the bridge from The Farmory, is already using Farmory-grown greens on the menu and looks forward to what’s next. “We want to support and partner with them because one of our goals is to stay as local as possible with the food we serve. You can’t get any more local than that,” says Adrienne Waters, general manager at The Cannery.

Teaching a person to grow fish and greens.

The Farmory project is now turning its attention to getting the word out on its urban farming techniques for those living in or near a food desert. UW-Green Bay’s Associate Professor of Chemistry, Deb Pearson, is involved in The Farmory’s Educational Planning Subcommittee and sees tremendous value for her students. “The Farmory allows me to give more real-world examples, and makes the academic ‘stuff’ come alive. This is really, really valuable.” At the same time, her students provide The Farmory with a wealth of knowledge and volunteer hours. “Our students have expertise in food, nutrition, public policy, environmental science, etc. and can be of great value to The Farmory.” Teaching people to grow their own fresh food, right in their homes, is vital to fighting the negative effects of living in a food desert. In addition, the workshops and volunteer options offered through The Farmory provide work experience and entrepreneurial opportunities for downtown residents.

This is critical in a food desert. “We want to inspire people to learn how to grow their own food again,” says Smith. “Especially low-income and those who are food insecure.” An aquaponics system is one way to access quality food on a relatively low budget. A simple, at-home aquaponics systems can be built for around $75.

Unique partnership cultivates success

The unique partnership between The Farmory and the experts at UW-Green Bay is providing an oasis of ideas to eliminate the food desert that those living in urban areas struggle with daily. At the same time, they are collaborating on cutting-edge research that impacts the local urban food economy and opens the door for the next generation of scientists to engage in food science economy and aquaculture.

It is a powerful example of what can happen when communities and universities collaborate to solve problems.

–Story by Kristin Bouchard ’93

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