Growing Greens and Jobs

2/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent

NY Nonprofit Turns Hydroponic <\n>Greenhouse Into Booming Business

ITHACA, N.Y. — What began as a Cornell University research project has grown into a booming businesses that supplies hydroponic greens to much of New York state and beyond, and jobs to those with disabilities.

Cornell originally developed Finger Lakes Fresh, a hydroponics greenhouse, to evaluate the use of controlled environment agriculture to provide year-round food in central New York.

Cornell partnered with Challenge Workforce Solutions, an Ithaca-based nonprofit, vocational organization, to use its workforce of individuals with disabilities to package the product, which at the time was simply Boston lettuce sold only in the Ithaca area.

That all changed in 2006, when Challenge Workforce Solutions purchased Finger Lakes Fresh.

The business is now run entirely by Challenge Workforce Solutions, which increased the product line to include several varieties of lettuce, arugula, pak choi and basil.

“In the winter months we have a big demand for baby pak choi, so the production of this crop is increased by 200 percent,” said Finger Lakes Fresh general manager Steve Holzbaur.

Currently, Finger Lakes Fresh products can be found throughout New York state, including New York City, and in many states from Vermont to Maryland.

“We do a little direct sales to local restaurants, but we don’t do our own trucking,” Holzbaur said. “We work with distributors such as Wegmans, Price Chopper, Regional Access, Sysco and Foodbank of the Southern Tier.”

From the one-eighth acre of greenhouse hydroponics, Finger Lakes Fresh produces about 500 to 600 cases of pesticide- and insecticide-free lettuce and greens per week, making it among the most productive hydroponic lettuce producers per square foot in North America.

“We are at about maximum production,” Holzbaur said. “We looked into expanding our operation, but it seemed a little iffy financially. Hydroponics needs a bigger base of growers. In North America hydroponics is still in its infancy compared with other parts of the world.”

Finger Lakes Fresh employs about 20 people from Challenge Workforce. Much of the work involved in producing, harvesting and packing the greens is labor intensive and is performed by people with various types of employment barriers.

“We want each of the people to succeed; we help them to build on their strengths and reach their goals,” said Holzbaur, who has worked at Finger Lakes Fresh for three years. “We work with social workers to determine the length of shift and best job for each person. It is exciting to see how each person progresses.”

Challenge Workforce Solutions currently obtains about a third of its funding from Medicaid. Knowing that funding is not likely to continue, they are anxious to become more self-sufficient.

Recently, they purchased four acres of land in Groton, N.Y., where they will break ground this spring to construct a 25,000-square-foot facility which will open in the summer. It will be used as a fresh food hub where people employed through Challenge will clean, sort and process fresh produce brought in through contracts with local farmers.

“Marketing of their fresh produce can be a major problem for some local small farmers and this is where we’re planning to help,” Holzbaur said. “So far, we have about 50 growers interested in contracting some of their acreage.”

The goal includes local value-added products, ranging from frozen vegetables to locally made tortillas.

“It will have a huge cold storage area, which we will be so happy to have. In addition to using it for all the projects taking place in Groton, we will be able to use it for the greens harvested from the greenhouse (on Pinckney Road in Ithaca),” Holzbaur said. “The limited cold storage has been a big problem.”

The program will help to keep land in the region in agricultural production and provide more local products by utilizing a workforce that for a number of reasons often finds it difficult to find employment.

And the food hub project could get an even bigger boost.

In October 2012, The Huffington Post, The Skoll Foundation, The McKinsey Group and Crowdrise joined forces to sponsor the Job Raising Challenge, a competition to help job-creating nonprofits gain prominence and funding.

Of the 217 nonprofits that submitted business plans, Challenge’s food hub project was among 74 selected as finalists.

The name JobRaising Challenge is supposed to evoke America’s barn-raising spirit. The nonprofit raising the largest donation will receive $150,000 in prize money. Second place will receive $50,000 and third place, $30,000. The finalists can accept donations until March 1.

“Any money we raise will help us buy equipment for washing, chopping, quick-freezing and packaging produce from local farmers that will then be made available year-round to consumers all across New York state and beyond,” said Emily Parker, director of development for Challenge Workforce Solutions. “Donations in any amount are hugely appreciated for this great project that brings a lot of value to a lot of people.”

For more information on the competition, visit http://www.fingerlakesfreshfoodhub.com. For more information on Finger Lakes Fresh and Challenge Workforce Solutions, visit http://www.fingerlakesfresh.com or http://www.challengeworkforcesolutions.org/.


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