BEMIDJI -- Despite the unpredictable nature of Bemidji’s weather, children over at the Boys and Girls Club of the Bemidji Area will soon be able to grow leafy greens and other fresh veggies all year long.
On Wednesday, March 31, the club installed their new “FlexFarm” -- a hydroponic indoor growing system -- purchased from the Wisconsin-based company, Fork Farms, via a Minnesota Department of Agriculture grant.
The device will allow the organization to expand its current gardening programming into something that can be done year-round.
The excitement in the room during the delivery of the FlexFarm was palpable -- Bemidji Boys and Girls Club director Andrea Kent exclaimed a few times, “It’s Fork Farm Day! It’s fork Farm Day!” -- but perhaps in no one more than Deb Dilley.
Dilley -- a recently retired SNAP Education Health and Nutrition Programs educator in Bemidji for the University of Minnesota Extension -- heads up the gardening program for the club.
She knows firsthand the power of showing children how fresh food goes from a tiny seed to their plates.
‘Kids eat what they grow’
Dilley has been working with the existing gardening program at the local Boys and Girls Club since 2006 and is excited to implement the new hydroponic unit.
“Deb is really going to be running with this program,” Kent said. “She's going to be working with the kids to educate and plant the seeds. (Fork Farms) actually developed curriculum and activities just for Boys and Girls Clubs.”
Dilley has hopes of installing even more gardening apparatuses in the future -- there is a grant application in the works for more systems -- so one can house romaine, one strawberries, and one marigolds, all at the same time.
The benefits of the hydroponic growing system are multifaceted, as it provides an educational experience for children, and serves as a food and revenue source.
According to Dilley, children who are exposed to the food growing process may be more likely to incorporate fresh foods into their diet. Those who ordinarily may not look twice at a piece of broccoli are suddenly excited to dig in once they’ve harvested it themselves, she explained.
“In my experience, nine times out of ten, kids will eat what they grow,” she said. “The harvesting of everything is by far their favorite part.”
The club is no stranger to growing its own food -- for more than 10 years, the club has partnered with the University of Minnesota Extension to develop a garden program. The club garden teaches members lifelong gardening skills by caring for the garden, they also learn about good nutrition when they harvest and prepare fresh produce from the garden.
In 2017, the garden grew by 400 square feet with the addition of 15 new raised beds. Through these expansions the growing space nearly doubled, resulting in a higher yield harvested.
The garden not only produces over 1,000 pounds of produce per season, but it also teaches nutrition and healthy eating, entrepreneurial skills, leadership skills and cultural traditions, Dilley explained.
Before the installation of the FlexFarm, produce from the Boys and Girls Club gardens was used to feed club members, and then sold by club members to families at the “farmers markets” hosted by the club during the warmer months. The club also partnered with ISD 31, selling produce to the district to use in school lunches.
This partnership will now continue on a larger and more consistent scale.
“Bemidji Area Schools has supported the Boys and Girls club through produce purchases for several years and look forward to the greens that will be available this spring and summer,” Bemidji Area Schools Food and Nutrition Services Coordinator Tammie Colley, said in an email to the Pioneer.
“We have several farmers markets during the summer where the kids will sell the produce. A lot of it is served here. Then a lot of it goes to the school lunches -- the school district purchases a lot of it too,” Dilley explained.
How the FlexFarm works
The FlexFarm solves a lot of gardening woes -- it’s functional all year long. No dirt involved. Best of all, no weeding.
The hydroponic -- the soil-free cultivation of crops in controlled environments -- system was developed by the Green Bay, Wis., based company, Fork Farms.
Seeds or seedlings planted in holes in what they call “rockwall,” a segmented planting substance made from volcanic ash. The individual seedlings in their volcanic planting material are then stuck in holes in the gardening system. Water is pumped through the machine to keep the roots wet, and plants are treated to rays from a grow light for up to 16 hours a day.
According to the Fork Farm website, one FlexFarm device can grow more than 25 pounds of food every 28-day growth cycle, which adds up to 395 pounds of fresh food annually or 3,400 plants a year. One FlexFarm unit costs $4,695.
Steve Tyink -- father of the Fork Farms inventor, Alex Tyink -- drove from Wisconsin to Bemidji to install the device, something he said he doesn’t do for just any customer.
The family has a special place in their hearts for Boys and Girls Clubs, he explained and has installed numerous FlexFarms in clubs throughout Wisconsin. Bemidji’s club was the first Boys and Girls Club in the state of Minnesota to have such a hydroponic system installed.
“To hyper localize food production like you all are doing is a monumental achievement for the community,” Tyink told club staff during the installation.
Applications are currently open now through April 30 for the Boys and Girls Club of the Bemidji Area summer program.