One of nature’s most effective weapons against pests that can destroy crops happen to be insects themselves – ladybugs. And thousands of the tiny creatures were let loose today inside what will soon be the state’s first full-scale, indoor vertical farming facility.
The bugs – Delaware’s state bug in fact! – will play an important role in the chemical-free pest control at Second Chances Farm, which celebrated its dedication today at 3030 Bowers Street in Wilmington.
Each of the legislators at today’s event took their turn releasing ladybugs onto the illuminated rows of bright green vegetables. The insects are meant to feast on any aphids, beetle larvae, mites – any number of other soft-bodied insects — and their eggs — that might be living in the space.
Using hydroponic, vertical farming, Second Chances Farm plans to grow as many as 350,000 organic, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables inside the former Opportunity Center facility in the city’s Riverside neighborhood.
The for-profit venture moved into the 47,500 square foot production and growing facility in September and will begin phase one of their growing project – utilizing one-third of the available space – after the holidays.
Founder Ajit George spelled out the many advantages of his state-of-the-art hydroponic farming program. “This whole building is more than an acre… We will grow roughly 256 plants per square inch. There is no way that this could be done outdoor, even if the weather was beautiful.
“So what is indoor farming? We are soilless. And we are pesticide-free and herbicide-free. We are unaffected by weather and we grow all 365 days of the year,” said George.
George said he hopes the business’ launch marks the beginning of an entirely new, “green-collar” industry in Delaware.
“Delaware has always been known for the three C’s: chemicals, chickens and cars. Then the cars disappeared, and we replaced them with credit cards. We have decided to propose new C’s: crops and compassionate capitalism.”
The name ‘Second Chances’ comes from a key aspect of the business model – tackling Delaware’s 70 percent recidivism rate by putting ex-offenders back to work.
Noting that “crime and incarceration statewide are down,” Governor Carney called Delaware’s re-entry problem a “very, very difficult problem.”
Today 17 men and women – ‘returning citizens’ – were introduced by name as the very first cohort of farm employees who will earn $32,200 per year as part of an “entrepreneurship in residence program.” And George says these employees will have the opportunity to earn an equity stake in the production.
George calls them ‘agri-preneurs.’ All are proud to be gainfully employed.
The new employees were selected from a competitive applicant pool and will undergo 28 hours of entrepreneurship and cognitive-behavioral training and take part in 16 weeks of paid training before beginning work on the farm.
Saad Soliman, executive director of Peace by Piece, Inc., which is coordinating the hiring of the workers, applied a deeply personal touch as he introduced several of the business’ new employees:
“Steve Denison was released from prison five days ago and met his 6-year-old son for the first time upon his release.”
“George Hamilton. George has overcome more barriers than most people ever even see. Three and a half years in prison, and recovery actively working since he’s been home. An amazing man.”
“AKA CEO Brenda. Brenda served 17 years in prison, has just been recently released and is teaching women about domestic violence and the cycle of abuse, and she honors us with her participation in our program. She likes to say she turned her mess into a message,” said Soliman.
The vertical farm initiative is located in one of Delaware’s 28 Opportunity Zones – investment zones with tax incentives meant to spur revitalization programs in economically-distressed communities. George and co-founder Jon Brilliant are still looking for investors to help raise $3 million in investments.
Guests at today’s event noticed row after row of green box shapes marked with tape on the floor of the facility. Each box represents each of the 400 modules which will hold the vertical growing racks of plants.
George noted many of the greens on the 8 rows of growing racks today: “Arugula, Swiss chard, green lettuce basil, Bok choy, sorrel, and microgreens — frankly anything, any chef wants us to grow and is willing to pay for, we will grow it for them as long as it’s legal.” George was referring to the fact that prior to the Wilmington City Council’s passage of an amendment to the city zoning code in July, indoor commercial growing operations were illegal.
Second Chances Farm has work to do before its farms are up and running and hitting store shelves or restaurant tables in the state. They have to install new air-conditioning, build walls and pump CO2 into the building. So, Brilliant says they will start with a smaller footprint, growing and harvesting 20,000 plants a week and they will have plants ready to consume by the end of the first quarter of 2020.
Once full-scale growing is up and running, the University of Delaware will send some of its urban agriculture students to Second Chances Farm to collaborate on research projects to study elements of the growing process, like lighting, maintenance and nutrition, and to observe the operation as a case study in business. Dr. Erik Ervin, chair of UD’s Plant & Soil Science Department, said, “And they’ll learn how to start a business, hiring practices and how to properly get the food to restaurants.”
Providing nutritious food in a hyper-local way where it can be consumed shortly after harvest is one of the main objectives of the business. Restaurants will be a key buyer of their products.
But Second Chances Farm is also working with major employers to establish a corporate community shared agriculture (CSA) program – weekly deliveries of fresh produce that will be available to employees. For each basket purchased, one order will be donated to a food desert, such as urban community centers and local food pantries, that are considered to have limited access to affordable, quality fresh food.
Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse said access to fresh, healthy food is critical to the changing business climate.
“Food security is a huge issue,” he said. “Experts say we are going to have to increase global food production by seventy percent by 2050, and projects like this will help us meet that demand. This facility will provide safe food and great jobs for returning citizens.”