Indianapolis man grows lettuce and herbs in shipping containers

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Unpretentious land can be found on the east side of Indianapolis on 30th Street. From the outside it looks like a wasteland with a few shipping containers on it. But inside these containers is an entire garden.

And among the plants you can find DeMario Vitalis.

Vitalis was the first in Indiana to own this type of hydroponic farm inside a shipping container. The unique method involves planting seedlings of plants such as grasses and lettuce on vertical panels and feeding them at controlled levels of water, nutrients and light – no soil required.

It is a method of agriculture perfectly suited to urban environments. Vitalis is able to produce almost 5 acres of food per year from two 40-foot sea containers. It also uses 99% less water than traditional agriculture, according to the company that makes the containers.

Vitalis sells its fresh herbs, lettuce and more to community members through online platforms such as Market Wagon.

Climate control is a huge benefit for Vitalis, who set up their farm, called New Age Provisions, in the second half of last year. Regardless of the weather outside, he can grow whatever he wants.

“It can be 30 degrees outside and it’s raining,” he says, “but inside it’s 65 degrees. Here I am watching Netflix and planting seeds. “

Although he now spends much of his time devoting himself to plants, Vitalis was not a farmer when he started all of this. He was just an entrepreneur looking for his next venture, and farming – which was linked to his history as a descendant of southern slaves and sharecroppers – felt like the right choice.

“It was just a way to become an entrepreneur,” he said, “and also to get back to the kind of occupation my ancestors once had.”

Vitalis was looking for something that would capitalize on a property he owned, and he had a hunch that shipping containers were the key.

At first he thought he would install tiny modular homes built from containers. But then he stumbled upon Freight Farms, a Boston-based company that could cram 2.5 acres of production into a shipping container, and the decision was made.

Although born in San Francisco, Vitalis’ family is originally from the South and he moved around a lot before settling in Indiana.

“Three of my four grandparents moved from the South,” Vitalis said. “So we were part of this black migration when we finally moved from the south to San Francisco on the west coast.”

After living in Germany, Kansas, and other places as his stepfather moved with the military, Vitalis’ mother decided to move him to Indianapolis, where he stayed and attended high school in Arlington and Purdue University.

Vitalis’ mother, Barbara Johnson, is a cook, so food has always been important to the family. And the herbs and vegetables grown by her son, she said, are “absolutely wonderful.”

“I just believe you can still inspire a person with a great meal,” she says.

Even so, farming or food production was never something they did at home, she said. But she knows it’s something he feels close to because of the family history.

“I guess it was just in his blood,” she said.

Vitalis was one of the first black owners to use a Freight Farms shipping container to start a small business in the country, said Caroline Katsiroubas, director of marketing and communications for the company.

“He especially wanted to be a catalyst for more black farmers to join the freight farming community,” she said, “and I really saw the impact.”

It was not easy to learn how to grow food.

Despite two degrees from Purdue University and a master’s degree from Wayne State University, Vitalis has no farming experience and had to undergo training before diving into his urban farm. He took online classes and even visited Freight Farms in Boston to learn about the equipment and the process.

“There has to be a learning curve,” he said. “It’s not easy to learn to cultivate; you have to learn to react to plants.

Sometimes her daughter will help her plant. Johnson, too, will help and prune plants, clean or help with planting, and occasionally bring his grandson. Understanding how the farm works has also been a learning curve for her.

“I didn’t know anything about hydroponics,” she said. “When I saw this wall of plants, I didn’t think it was possible.”

Funding was another obstacle. The farms cost $ 100,000 each.

After some research, Vitalis found out that the US Department of Agriculture would provide loans for these types of businesses, so he asked for $ 50,000 to help pay for a container and was quickly turned down.

People evaluating the profitability of these containers just didn’t understand how it worked or how much it could produce, he said. But instead of giving up, he pushed back.

Black farmers were always discriminated against when trying to get USDA loans, and he was motivated to make sure his business plan was evaluated fairly.

“There is a story behind it,” he said. “I was just one of the many.”

Vitalis appealed the decision and won. Then he turned around and asked for $ 200,000 instead – and got it.

Finally, one day, a semi-trailer pulled up in front of his property with the containers, picked them up with a huge crane, and dropped them just behind the neighboring building.

“It was quite interesting to see a big old 40ft container flying over a building,” Vitalis said. “It wasn’t easy, but you know God was on my side and I was able to overcome the obstacles that got in my way.”

In a hydroponic farm, everything is vertical – and everything is controlled.

At first, the plants start out as seedlings or seeds and are placed on shelves under LED lights, and water rinsed with nutrients are distributed to them with attached machines.

After a few weeks, the plants are large enough to transfer into a series of vertical panels that roll along the rails. These panels are also connected to water and nutrient dosing machines and placed between the LED lights. The water that circulates through the plants is saved and recycled back into the system, retaining water and nutrients.

Although space may seem tight, one container can produce the equivalent of 1,000 heads of lettuce each week, Katsiroubas said.

And throughout the process, Vitalis controls light, temperature, nutrients and water. Plants live in a perfectly contained ecosystem that is never threatened by drought, floods or pests.

“He has his own brain,” Vitalis said.

That’s a big plus, he said, because he can grow food all year round and he doesn’t have to worry about pesticides or herbicides. It’s also “hyper-local,” he says. When he receives an order, the food passes from the planter to the customer’s hands within hours.

David Bosley, the former Vitalis boss at Cummins Inc., used Vitalis greens for his Thanksgiving meal and said he was impressed with the packaging and freshness. At first, he says, the idea of ​​a hydroponic farm was surprising.

“I thought it was pretty new,” he said, “but I also thought, well, it’s like DeMario.”

No one was surprised that Vitalis implemented New Age provisions.

He’s always been the type to tackle a project without giving up, Bosley said. And he’s always been a pioneer and a hard worker, his mother said. She thinks this is something he may have taken away from her, since she has worked multiple jobs and attended school while taking care of him and his siblings.

“I am even more amazed with my son,” Johnson said. “It responds to a need in the community and follows a dream. It was his vision and he made it happen.



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