VERMILION RESERVATION- The dream of having a year-round source of locally-grown vegetables is getting closer to a reality as Harvest Nation is wrapping up its business planning for an indoor …
VERMILION RESERVATION- The dream of having a year-round source of locally-grown vegetables is getting closer to a reality as Harvest Nation is wrapping up its business planning for an indoor aeroponics CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm that will be located, at least in its start-up phase, in the Virginia area.
Harvest Nation President Dani Pieratos gave a presentation on the results of their planning process at a community meeting on Nov. 8 at the Vermilion Social Center. She also spoke to the Ely Tuesday Group earlier in the week.
Pieratos said the original plan to site the pilot facility on the Vermilion Reservation had to be abandoned because the only available building turned out to be too small to make the project financially viable.
“We need 2,250 square feet of indoor growing space,” she said. “It’s just not feasible to do it here in the space that we have.”
Pieratos said they have identified two possible locations in Virginia and are currently negotiating lease prices. Once the pilot facility successfully proves that their concept can work on the Iron Range, they can explore bringing a facility back to the reservation.
“This farm idea can be done anywhere,” she said. “It gives us local production, local control, and affordable access to culturally appropriate and healthy foods.”
The business plan calls for Harvest Nation to operate as a CSA, where families commit to purchasing a “farm share” on a regular basis, year-round. The business plan calls for half the estimated 100 farm shares to go at market rate, which they have determined to be $35 per week, with the other half at a reduced price to make it affordable for other lower and moderate-income families.
The market research they just completed estimated that the average family is currently spending a little over $40 per week on fresh vegetables.
Pieratos said they intend to finalize their business plan by the end of this month, followed by a search for start-up funding. If all goes as planned, Harvest Nation will be supplying locally-grown food to area residents by June 2020, said Pieratos.
The technical plans for the aeroponic design and software needed to run the system are are also nearly finalized. Dani’s mother, Denise, an architect with software design experience, has adapted designs that have been proven in other aeroponic operations, including one in southern Minnesota, and has been working with experts at the University of Minnesota- Duluth on the plans and methods needed for a successful operation.
The availability of the new relatively low-cost full-spectrum LED lighting makes indoor agriculture cost-effective, said Pieratos.
Aeroponics is different from the more conventional indoor farming technique of hydroponics. In aeroponics, plants are suspended in the air, with the roots exposed. The system can stack rows of plants upwards, making more efficient use of the indoor space. Continual misting of the roots provides the needed moisture and nutrients.
Aeroponics requires about ten percent of the growing space and half the growing time of conventional outdoor farming, which could make it a valuable method of sustainable food production.
Harvest Nation’s business plan has mapped out the rotations needed to produce 10 to 15 different vegetables per farm share per week. They have identified the vegetables they feel they can offer initially, including: lettuce greens, carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, Yukon gold potatoes, several varieties of tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, sweet potatoes, blue potatoes, garbanzo beans, green beans, broccoli, red potatoes, peas, onions, basil, dill, edamame (fresh soybeans), and black beans. Some will be part of most weekly share boxes, and other items will rotate in and out every few months.
Harvest Nation is hoping that a successful launch of their idea will allow such indoor farming centers to sprout across the country.
Growing fruits is a longer-term process, Dani said, so would need to wait until the vegetable growing is well underway.
Dani said their market research also looked at local families and their relationship to food and healthy eating. They looked at barriers to healthier eating, including the distance to grocery stores, especially for families in Nett Lake, the cost of fresh food, and the lack of time to prepare healthy meals.
The fact that many people, especially children, would rather eat more highly-processed or fast food is also a barrier, Dani noted.
“We plan on sending out recipe cards with each farm share box,” she said, “and hope to send out a kitchen gadget once a month, to make cooking more fun.” Cooking classes, and other community outreach ideas, are also in the works.
Some in the audience had ideas that might be incorporated into the business plan, such as adding value to the produce they are growing by providing ready-made dishes from an onsite commercial kitchen. Others suggested they find a use for the leftover plant matter, such as composting it for sale.
Aeroponic gardening can reduce the need for pesticides, though water-borne diseases can be a problem. Pieratos said their system is designed to be flushed out on a regular basis with clean water, and will use reverse-osmosis filtration, to prevent such issues.
“We also hope to develop and save our own seeds,” she said. Right now, there are not any seeds developed specifically for aeroponics, she said.
Harvest Nation is the brainchild of Denise Pieratos, who brings a background in architecture, software design, and urban planning to the business. Dani’s sister, Nikki, is the treasurer, who brings her strong financial background including the start-up of the Northern Eagle Credit Union, and her current job at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The team is rounded out with Tracey Dagen, Denise’s sister, who will oversee the day-to-day operations at the farm, bringing her human resource background to the group. All four women have strong ties to the Bois Forte community on Vermilion and Nett Lake.
Dani said they estimate one-time start-up costs to be around $400,000, and that annual income from 100 farm shares will be approximately $182,000. The business will be operated on a for-profit basis. During the start-up process, they have been working with the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability, which is acting as the fiscal agent for the grant they received from the Blandin Foundation for their planning work.
More information is available online at www.harvestnationinc.com.