Tag Archives: sustainable

Farm in a box: Shipping containers reused for fresh produce

Shipping containers have been turned into housing, art, even playgrounds. Now, a Boston company is recycling them into high-tech mobile farms as part of a new wave of companies hoping to bring more innovation to agriculture.

Freight Farms and other indoor agriculture companies are looking to meet the growing demand for high-quality, locally grown and sustainable produce by farming fruits and vegetables in non-traditional spaces such as warehouses, industrial buildings and containers.

They’re using hydroponics and other longstanding methods to grow plants without soil and incorporating technology that automates much of the work and reduces waste.

“The food system needs to be designed around technology and equipment that’s available today,” says Brad McNamara, Freight Farms’ CEO and co-founder. “It was designed 100 years ago without the right technology to reach the level that it needs to. The whole system needs to be modernized.”

The company says its Leafy Green Machine helps farmers produce a consistently bountiful crop — roughly the typical yield of an acre of farmland — while using 90 percent less water, no pesticides, and just 320 square feet of space.

Climate controls, automated lighting and irrigation systems, and mobile apps for monitoring and maintaining crops remotely also allow farmers to grow year-round with minimal oversight.

“Starting a farm is a lot to ask of one person,” says company president and co-founder Jon Friedman. “So we’ve put together a system that gives even a novice the tools to produce thousands of plants and get them to market.”

So far, Freight Farms customers say the benefits outweigh the costs, which include the $82,000 base price for the 2016 model, as well as an estimated $8,000 to $16,500 a year in electricity, water and growing supply costs.

“The beauty of the Freight Farm is in its ease of use and its mobility,” says Thomas LaGrasso III, chief operating officer at LaGrasso Bros., a Detroit produce wholesaler that’s been growing lettuce in its unit since September. “We harvest to meet our customers’ daily needs. You cannot have it any fresher.”

Launched in 2010, Freight Farms is considered a pioneer of container farms. About a half-dozen other companies in the U.S. offer them, including CropBox in Clinton, North Carolina; Growtainers in Dallas; and PodPonics in Atlanta.

Freight Farms has sold 54 Leafy Green Machines, with ones already in operation on Google’s campus in Mountain View, California; Stony Brook University on Long Island; and Four Burgers, a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Most Freight Farm customers are growing high turnover, compact crops the company recommends _ lettuce; hearty greens like kale, cabbage and Swiss chard; and herbs like mint, basil and oregano — and selling them to local restaurants and groceries and at community markets, according to McNamara and Friedman.

Jon Niedzielski, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in Massachusetts, says his office has already approved a handful of loans to farmers using Freight Farms’ containers.

“Efficient, hydroponic systems that need little open space can make a lot of sense, particularly in urban areas with lots of potential consumers willing to pay top dollar, year-round, for lettuce and herbs,” he says.

Industry experts caution that upfront costs and annual operational expenses like electricity for lighting systems that often run 18 hours a day can mean slim profit margins for would-be farmers.

But they also suggest technological advances are helping make indoor growing more feasible.

“I think it will take some development to make these systems truly sustainable,” says Andrew Carter, an urban agriculture consultant in New York and North American region manager for the Germany-based Association for Vertical Farming. “But I’m a firm believer in indoor agriculture and small-scale growing and think it will supply healthy, sustainable, and local food.”

Food industry CEOs call for ‘sound’ deal on climate change

The CEOs of several major food and beverage companies are calling on world leaders to push for a meaningful agreement at the United Nation’s conference on climate change later this year in Paris.

The 10 companies — including cereal maker General Mills and candy maker Mars Inc. — ran an open letter as a full-page ad in the Financial Times and Washington Post this week. They say they will “re-energize” their own efforts to make their supply chains more sustainable as well.

“We are asking you to embrace the opportunity presented to you in Paris, and to come back with a sound agreement, properly financed, that can affect real change,” the open letter reads.

The effort was organized by the environmental nonprofit Ceres, which is inviting other food and beverage companies to join in the commitment.

None of the companies involved would say their own practices are perfect, according to Anne Kelly, who directs Ceres’ climate policy program, but they’ve demonstrated a commitment to changing.

Others signing the letter are the CEOs of Unilever, Dannon, Ben & Jerry’s, Kellogg, Nestle USA, New Belgium Brewing, Stonyfield Farms and Clif Bar. 


Wisconsin family creates aquaponics business for sustainable farming

A Wisconsin family’s dream has turned into a family business

The Krause family owns and operates Windy Drumlins, which grows sustainable crops using a state-of-the-art aquaponics greenhouse.

Mark Krause, chief environmental officer of Windy Drumlins, said the farm started 15 years ago when he and his wife Fran, chief farming officer of the company, moved to Wisconsin from California with their children.

Mark had spent most of his life working in the food industry. Both he and Fran grew up in Wisconsin, but spent most of their adult lives in California.

“We knew we wanted to get back home. Dorothy had it right,” Mark said.

The family bought a property in Horicon and knew that they wanted to grow sustainable food for themselves, The Daily Citizen (http://bit.ly/1F955LK ) reported.

“Our tongue-in-cheek goal was to grow every bit of food that we eat ourselves,” Mark said.

“We get closer every year,” added Fran. The family currently produces well over half of the food that they eat on their farm.

The farm includes a stocked fish pond, a garden, an orchard, some chickens and beehives. But the most impressive part of the Windy Drumlins farm is the aquaponics greenhouse.

Aquaponics is a type of farming that utilizes no soil. Instead, it uses fish as the main source of nutrients for the plants that are grown on top of rafts floating in water.

“The idea here is you feed the fish and you let the ecosystem establish itself,” Mark said.

The greenhouse includes three 800-gallon tanks that house the fish. The family uses local blue gill and perch fish along with a few tilapias. The water from the fish tanks is run throughout the 1,400-square-foot system. When the fish are fed and process food, bacteria then survive off of the excrement. Those bacteria, in turn, provide nutrients for the plants.

Mark said the family learned about aquaponics after their son Mike mentioned it several years back. They took a master class at Nelson and Pade in Montello, Wisconsin, where they learned all about how to build and operate their own aquaponics system.

“Fundamentally, it is sustainable. It is a type of farming you can do without burning up fields or having to use excessive amounts of chemicals,” Mark said. His daughter Laura, the company’s chief education officer and a Mayville High School science teacher, added that this type of farming uses 95 percent less water than traditional farming.

All of the water in the system flows due to gravity. Only one small 90-watt pump is used, making the system extremely efficient.

The entire greenhouse, from the floor up, was built and designed by the Krause family.

The family started their aquaponics system without the use of the greenhouse. “We were trying to prove to ourselves that you could grow that much food indoors,” Mark said.

But, while the system worked, it was expensive to run grow lights.

“There is no amount of lights that can equal the sun,” Mark said. “So the question became, we either enjoy what we have and leave it at that or we jump in a little bigger. And if you know me, you know that it is go big or go home.”

Thus the greenhouse was built and the family business was started. Windy Drumlins has been selling macrogreens since February at farmers markets and small local grocery stores. Laura said that the advantage of this system, aside from sustainability, is that they are able to grow their food regardless of the weather conditions. “We pick lettuce in January. We are eating fresh, locally grown, chemical free food year round,” she said.

At one time, the family can grow over 5,000 plants on rafts in the greenhouse, while approximately 2,000 more are sitting on a germination table. Mark said, “We have somewhere around 7,000 to 8,000 plants in some stage of growth at one time.”

The system is designed to allow the family to harvest approximately 150 plants a day.

The family grows over 12 different varieties of lettuce, which they sell to the public. Mark said the lettuce, which the family calls macrogreens, grows very nutrient dense due to the growing conditions.

“I don’t know if they are necessarily more nutrient-dense than something that is grown in dirt, but the plants do grow faster,” he said.

The entire business is a family operation. The greenhouse was built by the family. The plants are grown, harvested and sold by the family. The family even wants to help educate the public about sustainable farming. This summer they will be leading two different summer courses for high school students to teach them about sustainability and ecology.

Mark said that this whole business grew out of a simple dream to be sustainable. “We are borrowing this world from our kids. Not everybody needs to own a farm but if everybody just did a few things, we could preserve this world for the future.

‘Perfect protein’ — World’s top chefs say eat small to protect oceans

Want to make a big impact on the health of our oceans? Think small, top chefs say. As in anchovies and sardines.

That’s the message from 20 of the world’s leading chefs, who gathered in northeastern Spain recently to draw attention to what they hope is a simple solution to the threat facing many of the larger fish species that overfishing has pushed to near collapse. Their take: If more people ate more little fish – anchovies, sardines, herring and mackerel, for example – both human diets and seafood populations would improve.

Ferran Adria, of Spain’s now closed elBulli restaurant, joined with Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea, Massimo Bottura of Italy’s Osteria Francescana and more than a dozen other chefs for a summit with the U.S.-based ocean conservation group Oceana to discuss leveraging their star power to get these fish not just onto their own menus – which only a lucky few will ever eat from – but into restaurants and homes worldwide.

“It’s the right moment and the right ingredient,” said Gaston Acurio, the co-owner and chef of Peru’s famed Astrid y Gaston restaurant, during an exclusive round table discussion with The Associated Press. “One of the best markets in the world is health and wellness, and anchovies and small fish are health and this is wellness that is good for society.”

Driving the chefs’ involvement is the campaign by Oceana aimed at convincing consumers to embrace eating more small oily fish. Known as “forage fish,” they’re part of the food chain that feeds larger fish, such as tuna or swordfish, both of which are threatened. The smaller fish are abundant enough to feed both the larger predators as well as plenty of people, says Oceana chief scientist Michael Hirshfield.

But though anchovies, sardines and similar small fish are treated as delicacies in much of the Mediterranean, in the rest of the world they often end up as feed for farmed salmon, chicken and pigs.

“They feed 3 pounds of fish to make 1 pound of salmon. That’s not a great way to feed a planet,” said Andy Sharpless, Oceana’s CEO and author of “The Perfect Protein.” “We can feed tens of millions more people if we simply eat anchovies and other forage fish directly rather than in form of a farmed salmon or other animals raised on fish meal and fish oil.”

Their point isn’t to criticize the farmed seafood industry, the chefs said. Rather, they want to lead by example. They agreed to serve small oily fish at their restaurants as much as they as they can, to train younger chefs that the fish are as good for the planet as for the plate, and to develop recipes that make it easy for the average consumer to prepare them at home.

“We need to take advantage of species that there are in great abundance,” Acurio said. “We as chefs with the magic and the passion and the talent we have can provoke and convince people to consume them and influence the market. As chefs we can create a consciousness to inspire many other cooks.”

The chefs scoffed at the idea that people – particularly small fish-wary Americans – might be reluctant. They said the same food revolution that has turned sushi into convenience store food around the world can work just as well on this. It doesn’t hurt that the chefs gathered in San Sebastian are known for their innovation and for taking raw food materials people would never think of buying and transforming them into delicacies.

Acurio said the chefs’ best contribution to promoting consumption of small fish might be creating simple meals anyone could cook. “If we can invent concept products, like the best burger you have ever eaten mixed with anchovies, that’s one way to popularize it,” he said.

For Joan Roca, who runs Spain’s famed El Celler de Can Roca with his brothers, the involvement with the campaign boils down to his feeling that “all chefs have a responsibility to be visible.”

“This campaign is trying to raise ethical and environmental public awareness,” he said. “If you take care of your health, you also take care of the planet’s health. It is as simple as that and it is something that everyone needs to understand.”

On the Web …

For more, visit Oceana.org.

Buy American Blooms: | ‘Slow Flowers’ movement pushes local grown, U.S. cut flowers

Come February, the owners of Farmstead Flowers begin nurturing seedlings and preparing three acres for their cash crop reaped from April through October — cut flowers.

Megan Hird and her husband founded their rural southeast Nebraska business in 2012 and are among the growing number of “farmer florists” intent on providing consumers the option to buy local — much as the slow food movement has sought to increase the use of locally grown, sustainable food.

About 80 percent of the cut flowers used in florists’ bouquets are imported, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. But flower industry experts anticipate that heading into Valentine’s Day, more people will eschew bouquets of imports for American blooms.

There’s been a recent — if small — rebound in the number of cut-flower growers in the U.S., from 5,085 in 2007 to 5,903 in 2012. The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers recently reported an all-time high of 700 members, the majority of which are based in the U.S.

The shift is two-fold, according to Debra Prinzing, a Seattle-based outdoor living expert who operates Slow Flowers, an online directory of florists, wedding and event planners and growers who use stateside flowers.

“I think a lot of it is just this rejection of the more structural bouquets — the flowers that are the Dirty Dozen, the same-old, same-old,” Prinzing said. “The romance of a meadow or a cottage-garden flower or an heirloom flower is really penetrating the consciousness of floral designers.”

There’s also a rising consciousness about the carbon footprint caused by the distance from which flowers are shipped, “just the same as it is with food,” she said. Critics of the flowers grown in South America and other places say those countries often don’t employ fair labor practices and that the flowers are often coated with chemicals to preserve them for a long journey.

A spokeswoman for the Association of Floral Importers of Florida — based in Miami, where more than 90 percent of imported flowers enter the country — said they’re using outdated information. While Colombia’s and Ecuador’s industries used questionable labor practices and pesticides years ago, they are now heavily regulated and have minimum wage requirements and bans on certain chemicals, Christine Boldt said.

South America is the most hospitable environment for flowers to grow year-round, Boldt said, which also makes them cheaper. But American-based growers counter that you get what you pay for.

“The florists I supply simply like how much fresher my flowers are … They’re not having to pick through my supply to pull out wilted or dead petals and leaves,” Hird said.

She offers local florists and grocery stores — even truckers who pass by Farmstead Flowers’ roadside stand — bouquets of locally grown snapdragons, foxglove, peonies, sunflowers and nearly 40 other varieties. But as with many who grow outside of California and Florida, Hird can only offer flowers during a six-month window. For Valentine’s Day, she’s selling gift certificates that can be redeemed for a 25-stem bouquet when her flowers are in bloom.

Next week is also the first Valentine’s Day for which consumers can be assured their flowers sprouted on American soil.

Kasey Cronquist is the administrator for the Certified American Grown program that launched in July with 36 members, most in California. All of them went through a supply-chain audit to guarantee the flowers’ origin before being approved to use the American Grown logo on their products.

Cronquist predicted that American-grown flowers will take a bigger share of the cut-flower industry in 2015.

“We have examples of where florists are starting to segregate their coolers, so that when they get the calls from their communities saying, ‘I’d like to buy locally-grown bouquets,’ people can go in and grab from the right side of the cooler so they’re not mixing the imported product with the desire of the customer,” he said.

That hasn’t been Rhonda Bullington’s experience.

The owner of Loess Hills Floral Studio in Council Bluffs, Iowa, said rustic wedding themes with cottage and meadow flowers were big trends in 2012 and 2013, but this year, “brides are wanting big, over-the-top pieces.”

She uses a local Nebraska grower for some arrangements and tries to buy U.S. flowers when she can, “but they tend to be a little more expensive.” As long as her customers demand lower prices over local sourcing, that’s what she’ll provide to stay in business.

And Bullington sees a big difference in the slow food movement and the push for local flowers: “You don’t need flowers; you want flowers.”

Study: Offshore wind v. offshore drilling

Offshore wind could produce twice the number of jobs and twice the amount of energy as offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, according to the environmental group Oceana.

The group challenges recent claims by the oil and gas industry that opening the East Coast to offshore drilling would lead the United States to energy independence, generate millions of dollars in revenue for states and create thousands of jobs.

Oceana said in its analysis, the benefits projected by the industry are exaggerated, due to the inclusion of oil and gas resources that are not economically recoverable. Industry estimates also rely on an assumption of a state revenue-sharing system that does not exist.

Oceana, in a report released in mid-January, also finds that offshore oil and gas development along the Atlantic could put at risk some of the nearly 1.4 million jobs and over $95 billion in gross domestic product that rely on healthy ocean ecosystems, mainly through fishing, tourism and recreation.

Other key findings:

• In 13 years, offshore wind could generate more energy than could be provided by all of the economically recoverable offshore oil and gas resources.

• In the next 20 years, offshore wind could create about 91,000 more jobs than offshore drilling — about double the job creation potential of offshore oil and gas.

• A modest and gradual development of offshore wind on the East Coast over the next 20 years could generate enough energy to power over 115 million households.

Screaming Tuna offers sustainable seafood

Neither bluefin tuna, a sushi staple, nor the popular hamachi, a Japanese variety of amberjack, is on the menu at Screaming Tuna Sushi & Asian Bistro, 106 W. Seeboth St., in Milwaukee. Their absence is part of the restaurant owners’ effort to keep the two species, which have been severely overfished, from extinction.

The Walker’s Point restaurant is a committed participant in the growing ocean conservation movement, according to Jeff Bronstad, the restaurant’s co-owner and general manager.

“It started over a year ago with a customer who asked a lot of questions about the origin and sustainability of our seafood,” Bronstad says. “We knew where our seafood came from, but we had not given a lot of thought to sustainability, and we began to wonder why.”

In March, after nearly two years in business, Screaming Tuna formalized its commitment to seafood sustainability by becoming a partner with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a conservation program designed to help consumers and businesses make seafood choices that will keep the oceans’ populations healthy and viable for future generations. 

Screaming Tuna is Seafood Watch’s first Wisconsin partner and one of only about a half-dozen Midwest restaurants participating in the program. To become a partner, Screaming Tuna submitted its menu to Seafood Watch for review and evaluation. The California-based group graded the menu, citing those fish that fit in the “best choice” and “good alternative” categories and pointing out those that fell into the program’s “avoid” category.

In addition to removing hamachi and bluefin tuna from the menu, Bronstad also eliminated escolar and Scottish salmon — all of which are being fished at unsustainable levels. In their place, the menu offers Hawaiian kampachi and ahi (also known as yellowfin tuna), along with Atlantic albacore tuna and Verlasso salmon from Chile. The four fish provide comparable flavor substitutes, Bronstad says.

“As far as flavors go, customers don’t seem to notice the difference,” he says. “As far as their interest goes, not everyone cares about sustainability, but those who do are happy someone is addressing it.”

Customer acceptance also has a lot to do with the talents of Jason Morimoto, 28, Screaming Tuna’s Japanese-Puerto Rican head chef. He brings his entire ethnic heritage into play in creating the restaurant’s creative fusion menu.

In addition to 25 varieties of sushi and more than 40 rolls, Morimoto also prepares dishes as diverse as a tuna pizza, topped with pico de gallo and served on a grilled crust, and crab chipotle wontons. The menu also features filet mignon, stuffed pork tenderloin and Thai curry chicken. 

In April, Morimoto served a four-course “smoked dinner” that included smoked oysters, shishitos (Japanese sweet peppers) and cheese, sushi rice with Spanish influence, and smoked chocolate ganache with dried berries.

Morimoto is also known for his Underground Omakase dinners that feature a surprise variety of sushi and other sample-size dishes. Omakase, which functionally translates to “chef’s choice,” is a popular alternative among New York sushi restaurants, but it’s rare in the Midwest.

Bronstad says that everyone can learn to make sustainable seafood choices.

“The best thing consumers can do is to educate themselves about what they’re eating,” he explains. “As purveyors, we should help educate our customers, who make the ultimate decision on what’s popular and what they’re going eat.”

Those decisions will help determine what seafood will be available for generations to come.


Screaming Tuna Sushi & Asian Bistro

106 W. Seeboth St., Milwaukee

Phone: 414-763-1637

On the Web: Screamingtuna.com

University of Dayton becomes 1st Catholic school to divest from fossil fuels

The University of Dayton, a leading Catholic university and the largest private university in Ohio, is divesting its $670 million endowment from fossil fuels.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of the environmental action group 350.org, had praise for the decision: “Earlier this year, Pope Francis said ‘if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us. It’s very good news to see Catholic institutions starting to put his wisdom into effective practice, and stand up to the powers that are trying to profit at the expense of all who depend on the proper working of this good earth.”

University President Daniel J. Curran said the decision was consistent with Catholic social teachings, the school’s Marianist values and a campuswide policy promoting sustainability initiatives. “We cannot ignore the negative consequences of climate change, which disproportionately impact the world’s most vulnerable people,” Curran said earlier this month. “Our Marianist values of leadership and service to humanity call upon us to act on these principles and serve as a catalyst for civil discussion and positive change that benefits our planet.”

The university is the first major Catholic institution to join the divestment campaign and, at $670 million, the largest endowment yet to fully divest from the 200 fossil fuel companies that hold the largest coal, oil and gas reserves.

Stanford University recently divested its $18.7 billion endowment from coal companies, but is still considering divesting from oil and gas.

The University of Dayton’s divestment is planned to occur in phases. The university will initially eliminate fossil fuel holdings from its domestic equity accounts. The university then will develop plans to eliminate fossil fuel from international holdings, invest in green and sustainable technologies or holdings, and restrict future investments in private equity or hedge funds whose investments support fossil fuel or significant carbon-producing holdings.

Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said, “We applaud the University of Dayton for taking this step as perhaps the first U.S. Catholic university to divest from fossil fuels. This is a complex issue, but Catholic higher education was founded to examine culture and find ways to advance the common good. Here is one way to lead as a good steward of God’s creation.”

The announcement came in the same month that President Barack Obama endorsed the growing divestment movement in a speech at the University of California-Irvine. There, the president told students, “You need to invest in what helps, and divest from what harms.”

More than a dozen universities or colleges have committed to fossil fuel divestment. So have more than 20 cities, 27 private foundations and more than 30 churches, congregations, or dioceses.