David Hoppe

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::Sustainable Local Foods Indiana

The farmer next door

by David Hoppe

The future has arrived.

That’s the overwhelming takeaway from the news Sustainable Local Foods Indiana is transforming a derelict 61,000-square-foot warehouse on South Rural St. into a large-scale hydroponic farm.

Based in Toledo, Ohio, Sustainable Local Foods is a for-profit that is using urban agriculture to revitalize inner city neighborhoods. In the process, SLF is on the cutting edge of a movement that seems likely to change the way we think about where much of our food comes from.

Hydroponic farming is practiced on a massive scale in Japan and in some parts of Europe and the Middle East. It has taken awhile for it to gain a similar traction in this country, but now an undeniable momentum appears to be building.

It makes sense. As people have become more interested in where their food comes from and how it is grown, the virtues of hydroponics have made themselves increasingly clear.

Hydroponic produce is grown indoors, in trays fed with recirculating water infused with nutrients and illuminated with LED lighting.

This means that here, in the Midwest, you can grow all manner of greens, tomatoes and even strawberries 12 months a year. There is no longer a need to import salad from a sunnier clime during winter. SLF’s Toledo farm reportedly grows 3,000 heads of lettuce a week.

Even better, the food grown under these conditions can be pesticide and herbicide-free — no need for Roundup, thank you very much. What’s more, hydroponics assures that plants get a measured dose of pure nutrients, which is important given the extent to which soils have been depleted over the years by industrial farming practices.

Hydroponic farming also makes a much smaller footprint in terms of resources used. The LED lighting required for photosynthesis is remarkably efficient; and hydroponics uses but a small fraction of the water poured into conventional farming.

Finally, for city dwellers, hydroponic farming means that neglected urban buildings can be repurposed to grow food, which gives neighborhoods a new lease on life, provides jobs, and cuts the mileage to market. Your local produce is truly local.

This feels like it could be an agricultural game-changer. Urban markets that have relied on long distance shipping for produce from the other side of the country will soon be able to count on a variety of quality products from the other side of town.

And the opportunities that this kind of urban agriculture affords for urban renewal are invigorating. Abandoned warehouse districts can find a new lease on life, and a whole new grade of employment, work that doesn’t necessarily require a college degree, is available. The SLF website claims its workers receive more than the minimum wage by an average of $5 per hour.

I had the good fortune to write a book about the Indiana food scene called Food For Thought: An Indiana Harvest. That project taught me the importance of knowing your farmer. It is amazing now to think that in Indianapolis that might mean knowing someone who lives next door.