The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 09, 2021 1:00 am

Housing nonprofit cultivating farmers

Adults with disabilities to help run hydroponic effort


For a few moments early Friday morning, an 80-foot-by-40-foot shipping container the size of a semi hung high in the air, suspended by a huge crane.

Then, the green-trimmed white container was placed on specially constructed supports – to a short round of applause from about a dozen onlookers.

The construction site off Constance Avenue just north of Turnstone's adaptive sports complex is a bit different from most – the shipping container isn't for storage, a contractor's office or even housing.

It's going to become part of a farm.

CASS Housing, a Fort Wayne nonprofit that has been busily building homes with customized living arrangements for adults with developmental disabilities including autism and Down syndrome, is sprouting a new program.

The organization plans to use the containers to grow produce hydroponically – with water and nutrients but no soil.

David Buuck, CASS founder and executive director, said the idea is to provide not only food but “meaningful days” for the 15 residents of what will soon be five homes.

And the organization has even bigger aspirations – it recently applied to the Fort Wayne Plan Commission to locate another 15 trailers on a lot on Homewood Drive in Washington Township to scale up the growing.

Buuck hopes to grow enough produce to sell to members of the Fort Wayne community through a subscription service, to other nonprofit organizations and, potentially, at wholesale and retail.

Money from sales would be plowed back not only into the farm but also into building more homes for a growing list of potential residents. Buuck said that list now stands at about 200.

The organization's initials stand for Customizable, Affordable, Sustainable and Safe.

Idea planted

The farm plans started, Buuck said, with the knowledge that one of the hardest aspects of life for developmentally challenged young people is finding employment.

“Only 34% of people are employed in the traditional economy,” he said. And, when times get hard, that employment may not last.

“We saw it play out with the pandemic,” Buuck said. Only one out of six employed CASS residents kept a job throughout COVID, he said.

The pandemic got him thinking seriously about an idea from the father of a potential resident.

John Hornbostel of Fort Wayne had been reading about farming in containers as a prospective career for his 21-year-old daughter with disabilities, Rachel.

She has autism and needs someone to be with her while on the job, but she loves salads and growing things, said Hornbostel, vice president of sustainability and milling for Egg Innovations in Warsaw.

He remembers broaching the subject with Buuck, and telling him that 2 acres' worth of leafy produce could be grown in one shipping container.

Hornbostel recalls Buuck's eyes widening. “Really?” Buuck said.

Yes, really.

And not only that, one shipping container could grow 4,400 heads of buttercrunch lettuce a month or 90 pounds of herbs – using only 5 gallons of water a day, 95% less than traditional agriculture.

And the containers' food could be non-GMO and pesticide free.

Teaming up

Soon enough, Buuck got in touch with Freight Farms, a Boston-based company pioneering the idea.

Rick Vanzura, Freight Farms' chief executive officer, said the company has been developing shipping container farms for about a decade. Farms now operate in 49 states and 33 countries.

“Our business is really a global business,” he said, adding that demand comes from small farmers, especially in places with bad soils or difficult climates.

But container farms also have been sold to college and university food suppliers, agricultural education programs, nonprofit organizations feeding underserved populations, and even a grocery store chain in Sweden.

But this is the first time he's heard of an organization using container farms in an integrated program for people with disabilities, Vanzura said.

And, he said, he's thrilled.

“I'm totally on board,” Vanzura said. “I don't know any other way to say it, but it's heartwarming. That's the only way I can put it.”

Growing produce hydroponically isn't new, Vanzura said; many grocery stores sell food grown that way – typically greens including lettuces, spinach, arugula and kale.

But Freight Farms' container systems have several features that set them apart, he explained.

For one thing, they grow produce vertically, not horizontally, in what growers call troughs or benches. Growing vertically maximizes growing space. Second, the trailers use programmable LED light, saving energy costs, and some can use renewable wind or solar energy for power.

Third, the system is fully programmable on a cellphone app called FarmHand.The app provides recipes for regulating the proper amount of water, light and temperature for growing, as well as planting and maturity dates for the precise crop desired. That takes a lot of the trial and error out of growing, Vanzura said.

He said the recipes have been developed over several years in conjunction with participating farmers. The company now can grow more than 500 crops, including some varieties of flowers. Experiments with strawberries are also going on, Vanzura said.

But the best applications are greens, herbs and small root crops such as radishes, he said.

“The tremendous thing is you don't need any specialized knowledge to start. But you do need discipline and a willingness to follow through,” Vanzura said.

Getting started

Buuck said CASS has hired someone to help manage the farm, Robert Johnson, and the resident employees, three to four for each container, will be paid as they would be for any job.

The first two containers, placed Friday, were funded at a cost of $300,000 through a private donation and The James Foundation in Angola, which donates to youth programs.

CASS residents Anna Kramer, 24, and Matthew Hammitch, 26, can't wait to start.

“It's just a really cool idea,” said Kramer, who briefly held a job in retail but got frustrated dealing with a lot of people every day.

Kramer said she gardened with her family before coming to live at CASS. She said she thinks working with plants would be natural.

“I never knew this existed, but if it existed, I never thought it would come to Fort Wayne,” she said.

Hammitch's previous job was as a family dog-sitter. But the FarmHand App technology intrigues him.

“I would really like to get into FarmHand and be able to go into the app and control the temperature and things right through our phones,” he said.

“I was really excited about this. I thought I could do this and have fun,” the young man said.

And make some money?

“That part too,” he said.


CASS seeks rezoning for farm project

CASS Housing will go before the Fort Wayne Plan Commission next month to ask for approval of a rezoning and modified primary development plan for a 1.63-acre tract off Homewood Drive in Washington Township.

CASS in August had the site rezoned to planned residential to construct eight attached residential homes for its living programs. It now wants to have the southern part of that site rezoned to general industrial.

The rezoning would allow the nonprofit to place 15 specially outfitted shipping containers for the hydroponic growing of produce.

The site would extend the program now being started on CASS's Constance Avenue property in Fort Wayne.

The organization also is asking to place a building for office space, produce processing and storage as an accessory use. The placement of solar panels and a parking lot also is being considered.

CASS still plans to construct homes on the site, said David Buuck, founder and executive director. The farm is estimated to cost $2.5 million and create 45 part-time jobs for people with disabilities, he said.

The organization is beginning a fund drive to finance some of the construction, he said.

Produce from the 15 containers will be equivalent to the yield of a 40-acre farm, Buuck said.

In its application, the organization said there would be no retail sales at the site and a minimal increase in traffic, as most employees will walk from nearby homes to their jobs.

The application will have a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. June 7 in Room 30 of Citizens Square.

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