Delaware’s first indoor vertical farm keeps growing — despite COVID-19’s disruption
On March 16, Second Chances Farm in Wilmington, Delaware, was harvesting its first crop of hydroponic produce to deliver to restaurants the next day. Since the indoor farm grows nothing on spec, there was nary an herb or arugula leaf to spare. Then the cancellations started rolling in. As of 8 p.m. that night, restaurants were limited to takeout to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were selling exclusively to restaurants — there were no retail sales,” says Ajit George, founder of the vertical farm, which is the first of its kind in Delaware. “We lost all of our sales; there were no customers.”
Second Chances Farm — which provides jobs to people who’ve been incarcerated — had been nearly three years in the making. George knew that if he temporarily closed the startup, it would be challenging to start it again if — and when — the pandemic ended.
It did not take long for Second Chances to get a second chance. On March 17, the social enterprise switched to a farm-to-table home delivery service. For $99.95 a month, subscribers could receive weekly deliveries of fresh greens that are hard to find elsewhere. Consider bok choy, leaf broccoli and unusual varieties of kale and lettuce.
“Much to my amazement, people started signing up that night, and over the last five weeks, we’ve sold out,” says George, who sent letters to his extensive list of contacts pitching the service.
Home delivery has been so popular, that Second Chances Farm plans to continue it. However, as Phase 1 of the state’s reopening gets underway, the business will also focus on its original audience: restaurants.
A Serendipitous Start
Second Chances grew from a meeting between George, founder of the MidAtlantic Food + Wine Festival and organizer of local TEDx events, and Chef Matt Haley, founder of the SoDel Concepts hospitality group.
Haley had rebuilt his life after spending time in prison for selling drugs. Once sober, he opened a series of restaurants and became an international philanthropist. In 2014, he won the James Beard Foundation award for philanthropy.
Haley had taken culinary classes while incarcerated, and he often organized classes for Delaware inmates. Before his death in a motorcycle accident, he was also interested in starting an urban farm.
Enter George, who was inspired by his friend’s vision as well as two TEDx talks: one on reentry and recidivism and another on the future of farming.
Sowing the Seeds
Second Chances resides in a 47,500-square-foot warehouse in an Opportunity Zone, an investment vehicle created by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The zones give tax benefits to businesses that locate in them. “They’re attractive to investors,” George notes.
Located near the Delaware River, the facility previously housed the Opportunity Center Inc. (OCI). The building’s large rooms and high ceilings easily accommodate the eight-level growing modules that give “vertical farming” its name.
The warehouse is divided into three “farms.” The smallest, Farm 1, is servicing the home-delivery service. Farm 3, the largest, will have 469 towers. The hydronic approach has numerous advantages: Plants can grow 365 degrees a year, regardless of the weather, and they do not need soil, chemicals or pesticides.
Most of us have purchased hydroponic Boston or bibb lettuce in the supermarket. George isn’t interested in competing for those dollars. “It’s a commodity,” he says of the popular greens. Second Chances Farms specializes in the type of greens, herbs and microgreens that would appeal to high-end restaurants.
Unfortunately, many of the home-delivery subscribers didn’t recognize them. “The bag included two or three greens that I had never used, and I would have loved a bit of direction,” acknowledges Carol Spiker of Wilmington.
Second Chances—which has learned on the fly—now labels each bag and is assembling a recipe book.
Spiker, who initially received a package intended for a neighbor, was so impressed by the produce that she ordered one. “The greens were beautifully packaged and very fresh,” she says.
George hopes restaurants will feel the same way. However, Second Chances is moving slowly back into the restaurant sector. “We want to make sure they get their sea legs back. They’ve been through hell,” he says.
Farm markets are not part of the business plan. Selling retail could result in an overabundance of perishable products that could spoil. It’s also labor-intensive, George says. “Labor is not cheap.”
A Fresh Purpose
The farm trains and employs people with felony convictions — or “returning citizens,” as George calls them. Out of the 150 who applied in January, the farm chose 10 workers. They are overseen by Patricia May, who has 40 years of experience in corrections and reentry.
“We are providing jobs at $31,200 a year for one year to a group of people who’ve had difficulty finding any jobs,” he says. “We are giving them a chance to become entrepreneurs.”
George says Second Chances Farm is providing hope to the workers and the local community while providing an exceptional product.
“I think we are truly transforming the lives of people and, for the first time in Delaware, we’re delivering fresh produce within 24 hours after harvesting.”