Before Grow Local farmed, it was merely an idea, a response to the predominant, yet ailing food system. Food touches nearly every aspect of human life, and so the owners Steve Catlin, Calvin Andersen and Alex Fehrenbach set out to bring the freshest, most nutritious food possible to their local community, Neenah, Wisconsin. In 2011, their philosophy became reality in the form of a small-scale sustainable farm.
The three broke ground by constructing a hoophouse, a metal ribbed structure with two layers of plastic used to extend growing seasons, and a 7,500 gallon aquaponics system.
Aquaponics is an agricultural system that utilizes a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. Fish, in Grow Local’s system (over 2000 bluegill and perch) create waste that is high in ammonia and nutrients, which is then converted to nitrates by nitrifying bacteria and can then be absorbed by plants as an organic fertilizer. This effectively cleans the water that then recirculates back to the fish tanks. Aquaponics conserves water with 95% greater efficiency than conventional agriculture and also eliminates the need for inorganic, harmful fertilizers, making it one of the most sustainable agricultural models.
Aquaponics was the initial focus of their production, but after a first season fraught with learning experiences it was clear Grow Local would need to expand their product offerings. Their focus shifted to creating a commercially viable growing system that mimicked the sustainable properties of natural ecosystems, otherwise known as permaculture.
Permaculture has many manifestations, but in Grow Local’s case it meant designing their outdoor gardens and grow beds to retain water, to require fewer nutrients, provide diverse products, weather seasonality and provide year in and year out. They accomplished these goals in various ways including planting perennials and companion plants, mulching and digging swales. One elegant example is the raised bed that is layered with cardboard, mushroom substrate and spawn, woodchips, and finally soil and crops. This raised bed blocks weeds, retains water, provides produce and mushrooms, and can be covered for over-winter production.
Currently the food they offer includes, greens, such as various lettuces and braising greens like kale and Swiss chard, gourmet oyster mushrooms, herbs, both perennial and annual, and microgreens. Microgreens are the first shoots of plants, densely seeded and sold still living. They feature intense flavor and bountiful nutrients, and are often used by chefs and individuals to add extra flavor or in the place of other greens. Grow Local also sources produce from foragers and other farms that utilize equally reputable techniques.
Grow Local now has gourmet edible mushrooms on the mind, because of their year-round viability and desirability among chefs and individuals alike.
Production begins by mixing and sterilizing substrate (mushroom food), which is largely made up of waste products including hardwood woodchips, sawdust and used coffee grounds from area cafes. After sterilization, mushroom spawn or mycelium, similar to the roots or vegetative growth of the mushroom body, is added to the substrate bags. This sterilized substrate is an easy source of food for the mushroom mycelium to fully consume, which generally takes 14-28 days. The blocks of inoculated substrate are then moved to a fruiting chamber, which has lower temperatures and higher humidity. Within 10 days little mushrooms begin to form and two days later a final product is ready for harvest. Currently Grow Local sells three types of oyster mushrooms, but has also grown several other varieties and plans to grow more varieties in the future.
Grow Local’s mission since its conception has been to make good food more available to the communities it served. In the beginning, Grow Local’s customer base was largely some of the best restaurants in town, but their focus has now shifted to include households and individuals. Grow Local worked to build an attractive product offering for individuals and families that works similarly to a conventional CSA model. However, Grow Local heard some of the critiques of the CSA model and attempted to address them with the Grow Local Subscription.
The subscription is designed to have consistent offerings while allowing the customer to pick exactly what they’ll receive weekly. Currently they offer mushrooms, greens and/or microgreens weekly, but plan to add other products in the near future. Subscriptions can be purchased at any time and for any duration, because of their ability to grow year round. They are delivered to multiple convenient locations throughout the Fox Valley for easy pick up.
Product packages like the subscription are designed to increase the availability of Grow Local products among different types of customers. They expect to partner with some of the most forward-thinking companies in the area to bring healthy, fresh produce year-round to their employees, thus making the company and its employees a healthier and more desirable workplace.
Grow Local has always envisioned being a company with a far-reaching and lasting impact. With food in a growing number of restaurants throughout Northeast Wisconsin and a growing list of subscription members, they plan to continue growing. The three owners have intentions to open a large indoor production facility that will increase production of their major products, mushrooms, microgreens and greens, by ten times!
Support Grow Local’s efforts by visiting the Neenah and Appleton Farmer’s Markets this weekend, connecting with the company on Facebook, and Instagram, and by signing up for a subscription on their website www.growlocal.us.