It’s hard to imagine that a country, a little smaller than twice the size of New Jersey, could be the third largest exporter of fruits and vegetables. The Netherlands, United States and France rank as the top three in the agricultural global market. This small but mighty country depends on competing in the world trade marketplace for much of its income; however, the excessive agricultural production was weighing heavily on the side of soil depletion. They had to do something to stay in the game.
These days, research and development of agri-business sustainability are the Dutch government’s main focus. Over half their land mass is used for farmland, plus they are a leader in greenhouse horticulture. Experimentation with greenhouse design has proven favorable for a now-neutral use of energy consumption. Gardening under glass gives more control to the growing environment, saves water and lessens the need for chemical use. This type of food production is important for the Dutch to keep researching because they understand if their citizens eat well, there will be a reduced cost in providing government healthcare.
This food development model is what social entrepreneur Jim Bloom was after in Toledo, Ohio. Working as an employment recruiter, in a previous position, he was able to see a huge niche market in the area that was sorely being missed. With only 179 days of sunshine, Ohio ranks four spots above Anchorage, Alaska with only 150 days a year of sunshine — the least amount for the continental U.S. Because half the year is spent in cloudy weather, 98% of Toledo’s produce is shipped in from as far as 1,800 miles away. At the same time, area unemployment was at 5.7 percent.
After much research of the European greenhouse models, Bloom started his company, Sustainable Local Foods, with a system of hydroponics. There is no need for sun or soil in this method, and less water is used than in traditional farming. LED lights cut back on energy use and provide enough light for photosynthesis. The vegetable rows are planted weekly in flat, slightly tilted trays filled with the hydroponic solution. This system will provide year-round lettuce production with between 3,000 – 5,000 heads of organic lettuce per week. Besides a selection of lettuces, the company grows greens, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.
Since 2012, expansion for the company has been steady with three current locations: Toledo, Columbus, and Detroit, Michigan. Bloom is currently waiting for an answer from Toledo’s commissioner of economic development to move into the abandoned Erie Street Market, located in the warehouse district. In revitalizing the new facility, the community will be able to come in for garden tours. Bloom commented, “In January and February, I’m hoping that people will be able to come in here and enjoy the plants that are growing. There is a mental health benefit to being around growing living things in the dead of winter.” The idea behind this is to strengthen community bonds, revitalize the downtown warehouse area, and people will be able to see where the salad came from that they had last night. The produce is being distributed in area markets and local restaurants. If the company keeps blossoming, there is hope to expand across the Midwest.
When asked if he had gone to college before he started this venture, Bloom said, “Sure, I did. But, there was nothing in college that I took pertaining to agriculture. I knew nothing about agriculture. My background is in education and vocational rehabilitation. I wanted to start this business because of the economy here. I wanted to bring some life into the area and provide jobs for the people here. And, it is taking off exponentially. I wasn’t expecting that. Just about every week someone calls to ask me when I can come to set up in their neighborhood.”
Besides growing healthful local produce year-round in a sustainable environment, bringing community together in a revitalized downtown area, and providing grocery stores and restaurants with thriving organic produce, Bloom hopes this expansion will provide many more jobs for more of the out-of-work Toledo residents.
You can check out the company at their Facebook site.