Plans for Urban Warehouse Farm Growing Again

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A project that places sustainable hydroponic farms in unused urban warehouses is ready to expand its reach in Indianapolis while dialing back its carbon footprint at the same time.

Farm 365 opened in late 2015 in the 200 block of South Rural Street, near downtown. Operated by parent company Sustainable Local Foods of Indiana (SLF), the business grows several different kinds of produce entirely indoors beneath LED lights and supports its economically depressed neighborhood at the same time.

Project director and farm manager Jim Bloom had success starting similar farms in Ohio when he was approached by central Indiana retailers who don’t simply want locally-grown food, they want it year round. But Bloom’s farms are meant to grow more than lettuces and herbs.

“It’s a for-profit business, but the primary focus of Farm 365 is creating jobs, assisting in the economic recovery in urban neighborhoods, and growing healthy foods specifically in neighborhoods identified as food deserts,” explains Bloom. “It does have a social entrepreneurship mission.”

The growing operations are also designed with sustainability as their model. Crops are grown vertically, so the acreage is multiplied cubically, not just by square footage. The LED lighting is 85 percent more efficient – and cooler – than sodium lights once standard for indoor farming, and Farm 365 is looking at the very real likelihood of placing solar collectors on the warehouse’s sawtooth roofline to power those LEDs. The ultimate goal of the warehouse farms is to grow food year round in a net-zero energy environment.

Another exciting development on the horizon is the plan to recycle the farm’s moisture in a method Bloom calls “water harvesting.” A dehumidification system will repurpose all the condensation then run it through a reverse-osmosis process, ultimately providing all the water the farm needs. Outdoor, four-season greenhouses are also in the works for next year, allowing the farm to expand food varieties to tomatoes, peppers and strawberries.

Farm 365’s indoor systems will be fully planted by October 1. Bloom says the farm has two fairly large contracts coming due in the fall when other traditional farms’ production trails off. One is a school system and the other a hospital. He says the farm’s aim is not to take away from other markets but to add to them. The year-round growth model translates into year-round employment for the farm workers.

From the site to the employees, “We are 100-percent neighborhood-focused,” says Bloom. “Our goal is that at least 75-percent of our workers live in an adjacent neighborhood, and, as much as possible, to employ workers from the neighborhood so that people can ride a bike to work.”

Farm 365 and Sustainable Local Foods of Indiana are owned by a small consortium of private investors and one community economic development corporation, Englewood EDC. The requirement of a key partner being non-profit meets the strategy of the business revitalizing the economy of the immediate neighborhood. The City of Indianapolis lent assistance at the outset, helping create the farm with a combination of public and private funds.

The group already has a new urban farm warehouse in the works for 2017, in yet another of Indianapolis’ food deserts. Bloom says Indianapolis has the most identified food deserts of any major U.S. city, and SLF would be happy to put a farm in each of those 15 areas.

“$1.8 billion is spent on what we grow,” he explains. “But 93 percent is shipped here from 1,500 miles away or more. We should be growing that here, keeping the money here and employing people here, but it’s critical to have community support. This is a collaborative effort. This isn’t a company making a difference, it’s a community saying we want to change hunger and we want to change the economy.”

Farm manager Jim Bloom explains how recaptured water leads to healthier plants.
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