When it comes to doing good, some growers set a high bar. They form integral community partnerships and educate people about health and nutrition through offering locally grown produce, all the while creating jobs and committing to strict food safety and environmental standards. These growers exude a sense of altruism, and their passion provides clear benefits to their and other communities.
Although it is rare to succeed in these many ways, examples are being set by Traders Hill Farm, an aquaponics and leafy greens operation in Hilliard, Florida; and the Rid-All Green Partnership, a nonprofit urban farm in Cleveland.
Traders Hill Farm began small and is now a commercial agribusiness, says company president Tracy Nazzaro. The operation built its aquaponics beta system in a retrofitted chicken barn in 2013. “The structure itself was in pretty good shape, but it had that tin roof to it, so we cut out sections of the roof and put in corrugated plastic just to let the light in,” Nazzaro says. Traders Hill no longer grows produce in the former chicken barn, but it plans to turn it into an aquaculture hatchery in 2018.
The greenhouse operation specializes in romaine lettuce — both red and green varieties — but also grows Bibb, Lollo Rossa, Oscarde, frisée and a spring mix. It sells fresh produce to mostly restaurants, but also a handful of retail stores.
To fuel growth and advance food safety protocols, Traders Hill built a 10,000-square-foot commercial structure in 2015, and the following year, built a larger 40,000-square foot structure. It also began another major development in 2016 — its internship program.
Students in the Sunshine State
For the past two summers, paid interns have shadowed growers and their colleagues at Traders Hill. Working with the aquaculture team, the interns measured greenhouse temperatures, as well as feed amounts and dissolved oxygen in the fish tanks for the operation’s approximately 10,000 tilapia. Afterward, the students mapped the data they gathered.
In their internships, students have worked in Traders Hill’s aquaculture, horticulture, general farm and office environments. All high school interns so far have been local, and college interns have come from the University of North Florida, Jacksonville University, Southern Illinois University, Auburn University and Valdosta State University in Georgia.
Nazzaro suspects many young people are drawn to this work because it is technical. “This is a different farming from what we think of as traditional ag — although traditional ag isn’t what it used to be either,” she says. “But it’s not tractors and hoes and garden tools. This is a much smaller footprint. There are a lot more moving parts. I think that they gravitate toward that.”
Traders Hill awarded a full scholarship to a local student who worked at the farm during his senior year of high school and is now a sophomore at Southern Illinois University studying agricultural systems and education. Looking ahead, the operation is considering offering partial scholarships to benefit a greater number of students.
The greenhouse has hired interns following completion of their internships. In September 2017, the farm hired Victoria Caba, an intern from that summer and a Jacksonville University marine science and sustainability graduate, to work in its aquaculture department. And the farm hired summer 2017 intern Nichole Curry, a freshman studying finance and accounting at the University of North Florida, to work part-time while she attends college.
Traders Hill participates in community partnerships, such as working with the Nassau County School District to supply students with lettuce, engage them in health fairs and invite them on tours. Additionally, it works with professors at nearby Jacksonville University and provides tours for students in the university’s marine science program.
“One of our core values is developing people,” Nazzaro says. “So we seek out and hire people who are a good fit for our company and our culture, and then we’ll provide them with opportunities and training.”
Emphasizing local produce
Traders Hill Farm sells its popular romaine lettuce to markets spanning the area from Daytona, Florida, to the south; to Tallahassee, Florida, to the west; and Savannah, Georgia, to the north. “Where we’re located on the East Coast, that’s a pretty big deal,” Nazzaro says. “From being in the ag industry, almost all romaines are grown either in Yuma [Arizona] or Salinas [California].” But Traders Hill’s customers can expect their produce to be grown within 130 miles and delivered promptly.Local produce is one of many benefits the Nassau County School District sees in partnering with Traders Hill. The 16-school district previously received its lettuce from a national supplier at a low price. But Traders Hill conducted a test whose results convinced the district to switch lettuce providers to its nearby aquaponics farm.
“We took what they got from their supplier and we took ours, and over a week we looked at what kind of shrink we had,” Nazzaro says. “The commercial stuff was getting between 40 and 50 percent shrink, which was just not usable product, and ours was in the 5 percent range. They were like, ‘Wow.’”
In many ways, local produce is healthier than that which has traveled a long distance. Produce with fewer miles on it contains more nutrients and nutrient variety, according to Kathleen Frith of the Harvard School of Public Health. And children have something to gain from eating local produce, because according to the Mayo Clinic, they need the same types of nutrients as adults, just in different amounts.
Traders Hill visits the district schools to discuss the greenhouse's process and the importance of eating healthy eating. “We are really proud of the fact that we provide the cleanest food possible, both from a food safety standpoint — we take our food safety very, very seriously — and that we aren’t adding anything into this food supply that doesn’t need to be there, just from a pure health standpoint — no pesticides, no herbicides, no fungicides.”
Fulfilling consumer demand
Valuing health and safety, Nazzaro and her colleagues at Traders Hill Farm were excited when the National Organic Standards Board voted in November 2017 to allow USDA Organic certification for hydroponic and aquaponic produce operations. Prior to the decision, Nazzaro says, hydroponic and aquaponic growers found themselves in a precarious position in declaring certification.
Traders Hill joined the debate to ensure aquaponics would be certified USDA Organic. “We had six team members write arguments for why we should be allowed to do that,” Nazzaro says. “I reached out to my local university professors. They also wrote arguments. We delivered verbal comments at the recent hearing, and we were really pleased about that.” Within the next year and a half, Nazzaro says Traders Hill plans to determine if USDA Organic certification is viable for the operation — aiming to officialize the practices it already intently follows.
Also, in the future, Traders Hill will consider adding other types of produce. “We’re a regional player,” Nazzaro says. “We developed this regional market and they’re buying all our leafy greens. Then it’s like, ‘Okay, what else would you guys like that grows well in our system?’”
Produce markets might need more greenhouses like Traders Hill to step up their output. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs expects the world population to reach 8.6 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, according to the report, 2017 Revision of World Population Prospects.
“We’re feeding people,” Nazzaro says. “This is part of a bigger plan, and we need more food. This is really important, because on a global scale our food production needs to exponentially increase. I don’t know if we need a lot of lettuce, but on a lot of levels it needs to exponentially increase. It’s fun to be a part of something that’s bigger.”
Meet the Soil Brothers
Another grower creating jobs and improving diets is the Rid-All Green Partnership, a nonprofit urban farm thriving in Cleveland’s Kinsman neighborhood. Produce Grower first featured Rid-All’s work in the community in the December 2014 issue (Editor’s note: Read the story here). But we decided to provide an update as the farm has continued expanding over the past several years, in part through strengthening its aquaponics and composting efforts, and by influencing urban farmers outside of Cleveland.
Childhood friends Damien Forshe, Keymah Durden and Randell McShepard began Rid-All Green Partnership in 2009 with broad ambitions to clean up and revitalize toxic soils, develop meaningful community partnerships and provide fresh produce to city residents.
Operating in an area known as the “Forgotten Triangle” for its history of illegal dumping and burned-out cars, Rid-All cuts through the area’s discord to bring community members together. “We encourage everybody to come and get involved,” Forshe says, “because that’s what we all have in common — food.”
Rid-All’s output includes lettuce; heirloom tomatoes; kale greens; collard greens; chili, ghost and cayenne peppers; rosemary; lavender; thyme; basil; beets; and Swiss chard. On 1.3 acres, Rid-All runs one 30-by-80-square-foot hoop house, two 30-by-60-square-foot hoop houses, two 30-by-60-square-foot greenhouses, a treehouse office and a teepee (used for events such as weddings and concerts, as well as relaxation for the farmers). In 2017, Rid-All expanded its aquaponics footprint by 7,200 square feet and added a five-acre compost facility.
The farm sells produce to restaurants and caterers, and directly to end consumers. “We operate a CSA — community-supported agricultural program — where members from the community can sign up for one of three tiers — gold, silver or bronze,” Durden says. “Based on their membership, they can come and pick up food weekly that they take home and consume.”
Overcoming the unknown
Rid-All, whose partners include the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Ohio State University and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, places a strong emphasis on job creation. The farm’s main staff consists of six people, but they require help with tasks such as growing, groundskeeping, landscaping and driving to pick up food waste. “Since our beginning we have created over 15 to 20 jobs for local residents,” Durden says. “Some only stay with us for a short time before moving on to manage their own project.” Over the course of a year, the operation adds around 300 volunteers.
Durden stresses the importance of educating people about healthy eating habits. “Most days, many folks, particularly in low-income areas, are making food choices with their wallet — ‘I can buy what I can afford’ — instead of making an educated choice based on knowledge of the food that they’re consuming,” he says. “We believe that if we can educate folks about how to make healthy choices, then that fear of the unknown won’t be as prevalent.”
But, Durden says, people are more educated about food choices now than they ever were in the past. When organizations like Rid-All teach children to develop healthy eating habits, those children will retain those habits as they transition into adulthood. Simultaneously, Rid-All teaches children and other community members about making smart decisions in other aspects of life, from the TV they watch to the environment they find themselves in.
Many of the partnership’s educational offerings are specific to growing produce, but a generous portion of them extend into other areas as well. “Our main tracks deal with our composting, our aquaponics operations and urban farming as our main core of classes that we teach,” Durden says. “But that branches out anywhere to wastewater management, it goes into animal husbandry, dealing with trees and agriculture. But then we spin off even further into arts and entertainment, where we engage local students and residents about how to become creative again.”
Rid-All’s work isn’t limited to Cleveland, either. When Columbus, Ohio’s Linden neighborhood was facing many of the same issues as Kinsman, its Saint Stephen’s Community House decided to address them. In 2014-15, the community house linked with Rid-All, which built it a greenhouse with aquaponic tanks, a compost bin and double-wide hoop houses. Since then, the community house, like Rid-All, has been providing educational programs, creating jobs and making compost. It even has its own teepee.
To make good happen in the community, growers need to put in “manpower and blood, sweat and tears,” says David Hester, Forshe and McShepard’s cousin and a farmer at Rid-All. “When you’re not getting paid, or anything that you still have the passion with, keep on moving it forward, as long as you’re doing something,” he says. “Don’t just talk about it — actually do something. For us, a lot of times, we recommend starting with the soil, because that makes the hugest difference in how your place is going to turn out.”
Remediating the soil
The soil is a major component of the Rid-All Green Partnership. The toxins that saturated the former dump site created a challenge for the urban farmers, who had to improve soil conditions. They tried remediation via clay, as well as using soil they received from a rural area. Ultimately, they succeeded when they layered the ground with wood chips. “What I found out is that wood chips are the best remediation that you can use for lead, arsenic, things like that, so we were layering our ground [with them],” Forshe says. “Wood chips eventually break down from a carbon to a soil.”
With a commitment to minimize food waste, Rid-All established a soil compost business with the name Soil Brothers in 2016. As a whole, Rid-All has produced more than 500 tons of compost since 2011. In 2014, Soil Brothers became the only compost facility in Greater Cleveland to earn a Class II Compost Facility license through the EPA. The soil business is one of Rid-All's biggest revenue streams, working with local Starbucks stores, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, AVI Foodsystems and other partners.
In June 2017, former Ambassador to the United Nations and civil rights activist Andrew Young visited Rid-All for the purpose, Young says, of partnering with Soil Brothers. A Cleveland public broadcasting station filmed Young telling an audience at the event, “I think it’s our calling to kind of pull the world together in peace, and peace starts with a good, balanced diet.”
“The Soil Brothers’ whole concept is relative to fortifying our bodies with nutritionally rich soil first,” says Marc White, Rid-All’s operations manager. “If [nutrients] are not in the soil, they can’t get in the food. We’ve been eating empty food for the last 20 years. That’s why everybody’s sick.”
Over the past eight years, the urban farm has helped redefine the area and even earn it a new name. “As society has shifted and the economies have changed, a lot of neighborhoods got left behind,” Durden says. “We believe that we can go into those neighborhoods and transform them from desolate to places of hope. This area that we’re in now, the Kinsman area, which was called the ‘Forgotten Triangle’ is now referred to as the ‘Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone.’”
We're excited to see what Rid-All does in the future. Look out for the forthcoming “Soil Brothers” documentary for more coverage.