Plans for vertical farm take root in NE Wilmington

Second Chances Farm, LLC has entered into a Letter of Intent to purchase a 50,000-square-foot warehouse at 3030 Bowers St. in Northeast Wilmington and plans to open its first vertical farm by this fall if everything falls into place.

Vertical farming is an industry that can work to supplement traditional agriculture by using a controlled environment to grow food locally while saving space and water, and reducing the carbon footprint of transporting food long distance.

The goal is to help state or federal inmates from Delaware obtain jobs – and futures as entrepreneurs – after they’re released, and to reduce the high rates of recidivism in a city where, on average, about 100 men and women are released from Delaware prisons every month to three Wilmington ZIP codes (19801, 19802, and 19805),” founder Ajit George told the Delaware Business Times in February.

George plans to raise $2.5 million to fund the purchase of the former Opportunity Center building that borders the Riverside neighborhood and set up the first 10,000-square-foot farm. The Opportunity Center, owned by ServiceSource Delaware, provided workshops for disabled people at the location before relocating earlier this year to New Castle

The first step is asking the Wilmington City Council to amend the zoning code to allow for “Indoor Commercial Horticultural Operations.” George says he is on an accelerated timetable and hopes to have approval by the end of July. The City Planning Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved the venture and City Council will meet on the topic on Thursday and schedule an additional public hearing before voting on the measure.

But there are other hurdles to clear before George can open the doors.

  • Finalize the crop mix with the help of Jackson, WY-based Vertical Harvest Co-Founder Penny McBride.
  • Sign a definitive agreement with the property owner that will give George right of entry before the Oct. 31 closing date so that he can set up a prototype farm to show “investors, the media, and government officials” how they work and let them taste some lettuce grown in LED-lit hydroponic towers that do not require soil, pesticides, or even natural sunlight.”
  • Set up the $2.5 million Opportunity Fund, which allows investors in opportunity zones to defer capital gains.
  • Work with the Kingswood Community Center at 2300 Bowers St. and other community groups to hire 10-15 workers from the local neighborhood, depending on the mix of crops.
  • Close on the building purchase by Oct. 31 (“earlier if we raise the capital sooner,” says George) and set up the farm over the next 30 days, with an eye on distributing the first set of crops by Christmas 2019.

“The interesting thing about indoor farming in general is that it has many different business models,” said McBride, who is also the vice-chair of the international FarmTech Society. “It has

the capacity to not only feed people but train different workforce sectors. I’ve seen it work with immigrants and people with disabilities, but this is the first ex-offender population application for this sector.”

Opportunity Zones are census tracts designated by the governor and approved by the federal government for the purpose of economic development and investment in low-income areas. They were created as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Delaware has 25 such opportunity zones, including six in Wilmington.

Approval of Resolution 8-19 would expand the definition of acceptable uses and “facilitate not only plant cultivation but related practices such as harvesting, transportation, packaging, distribution and marketing. These urban farming practices result in the creation of jobs and development of the workforce; increased local food production and supply; the creation of new markets for agricultural producers, consumers, and businesses; the revitalization of abandoned or underused properties and buildings; and community engagement,” according to the planning-meeting agenda.

“With the onset of innovative indoor horticultural production practices in nontraditional urban settings, such as indoor vertical farming and hydroponic farming, Wilmington’s Zoning Code is proposed to be updated to encourage and promote these practices within the City,” the proposal says.

“The mission of Second Chances Farms aligns with what we’re trying to accomplish here,” said Logan Herring, CEO of REACH Riverside, a community development corporation focused on revitalizing the neighborhood. He is also the CEO of Kingswood Community Center and The Warehouse, a “one-stop teen center” that will open next January on the site of the former Prestige Academy charter school. “ I anticipate working closely with them to make sure our residents are both employable and employed.

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