Photo courtesy of Celestial Farms

Minister William Winkelman has big plans to supply his whole county with fresh produce. Located in Erie, Pennsylvania, his nonprofit hydroponic farm, Celestial Farms, is only its beginning stages but has its sights set on expansion.

Winkelman decided to grow his own crops before the farm even came to fruition. To avoid spending upwards of $500 a month on groceries for his family, Winkelman started raising and producing what he could. He began researching different methods that would not only be effective, but cost-efficient as well.

“I grew up in the farming community, and as I was looking into proper ways of producing, I stumbled across hydroponic,” Winkelman says.

The inspiration for Celestial Farms

The idea to turn a garden into a full-fledged farm came about from Winkelman’s own realization while shopping. Since the lettuce he purchased came from the West Coast, most of its shelf life had already run out.

“This is the reason why when we go to buy lettuce at the store, we have it for a couple of days and it already starts to wilt,” Winkelman says. “It shouldn’t be wilting that fast.”

Winkelman wants to be able to supply Erie County with fresh produce, with the eventual goal of cutting out product shipped in from the West Coast. The ideal setup for efficiency is two commercial greenhouses that can produce 40,000 heads of lettuce a week.

The focus is on growing Salanova lettuce, Winkelman’s main crop until the farm becomes better-suited for expansion. (Currently, the farm is raising money on Kickstarter.) The product is known for having benefits outside of its nutritional value.

“If you’re growing in soil or hydroponics, you can cut the top of it off and it will regrow itself. There are a lot of advantages to this lettuce,” Winkelman says.

Celestial Farms’ plans

One way Celestial Farms is looking to keep its costs down is through the community. Once up and running, Winkelman plans to reach out to local schools to set up a program where students can work on the farm in exchange for a grant upon graduation. Through this, the need for farmers can be emphasized instead of “beating students to death with the idea of work ethic.”

The grower plans to also do community outreach through food donations. Winkelman aims to give only fresh produce as opposed to the bulk of farms that only donate throwaway produce.

“Why are these people who are less fortunate not able to get something just as good as the rest of everybody else, just because they’re less fortunate? No,” Winkelman says.

Salad bars for local schools and donations to nursing homes are ways Winkelman also sees fit to give back and help others.Yet, he still acknowledges that these things take time. Though there is a ways to go, Winkelman has nothing but optimism for the future of Celestial Farms.

“It’s not about tax write-offs, it’s about giving back,” Winkelman says. “It’s about changing people’s mentalities on how they think about and purchase healthy foods.”

The author is a summer intern with Greenhouse Management magazine.