INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – A modest lot is on the east side of Indianapolis on 30th Street. From the outside it looks like an empty lot with a few shipping containers on it. But there is a whole garden in these containers.
And among the plants you will find DeMario Vitalis.
Vitalis was the first in Indiana to own this type of hydroponic farm in a shipping container. The unique method is to plant seedlings of plants such as herbs and lettuce on vertical plates and provide them with controlled amounts of water, nutrients and light – no soil required.
It is a type of agriculture that is specifically suited to urban environments. Vitalis is able to produce nearly 5 hectares of food per year from two 40-foot shipping containers. It also uses 99% less water than traditional farming, according to the company that makes the containers.
Vitalis sells its fresh herbs, salads and more to people in the community through online platforms like Market Wagon.
Air conditioning is a big plus for Vitalis, who started his farm called New Age Provisions in the second half of last year. Regardless of the weather outside, he can grow whatever he wants.
“It can get 30 degrees outside and it’s raining,” he says, “but it’s 65 degrees inside. In here I watch Netflix and sow seeds. “
Even though he spends a lot of time with plants today, Vitalis wasn’t a farmer when he started all of this. He was just an entrepreneur looking for his next venture, and agriculture – which was linked to his history as a descendant of enslaved people and southern tenants – seemed like the right choice.
“It was just a way of becoming an entrepreneur,” he said, “and getting back to the kind of job my ancestors once had.”
Vitalis was looking for something that would use a piece of land he owned, and he felt that shipping containers were the key to that.
At first he thought he was going to build a couple of modular tiny homes out of containers. But then he came across Freight Farms, a Boston-based company that could cram 2.5 acres of production into a shipping container, and the decision was made.
Although he was born in San Francisco, Vitalis’ family is originally from the South, and he moved around a lot before settling in Indiana.
“Three of my four grandparents started in the south,” said Vitalis. “So we were part of this black migration when we finally moved from the south to San Francisco on the west coast.”
After living in Germany, Kansas, and other places when his stepfather moved around with the military, Vitalis’ mother decided to relocate him to Indianapolis, where he stayed and attended Arlington High School and Purdue University.
Vitalis’ mother Barbara Johnson is a cook, so food has always been important to the family. And the herbs and vegetables that her son grows are “absolutely wonderful”.
“I just believe that you can always inspire people with good food,” she said.
Even so, agriculture or food production was never something they did at home, she said. But she knows that based on family history, he feels connected to it.
“I think it was just in his blood,” she said.
Vitalis was one of the first black owners to use a Freight Farms freight container to start a small business in the country, said Caroline Katsiroubas, the company’s marketing and communications director.
“Most of all, he wanted to be a catalyst for more black farmers to join the freight farming community,” she said, “and I’ve definitely seen the effects.”
It wasn’t easy to learn how to grow food.
Despite two degrees from Purdue University and a Masters degree from Wayne State University, Vitalis has no background in agriculture and had to do his own training before diving into his urban farm. He took online courses and even visited Freight Farms in Boston to learn about the equipment and the process.
“It takes a learning curve,” he said. “It is not easy to learn to farm; you have to learn to react to the plants. “
Sometimes his daughter helps him plant. Johnson also helps with planting and trimming, cleaning or planting and occasionally brings her grandson with him. Understanding how the farm works has been a learning curve for them too.
“I didn’t know anything about hydroponics,” she said. “When I saw that wall of plants, I thought it wasn’t possible.”
Funding was another obstacle. The farms cost $ 100,000 each.
After doing some research, Vitalis found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided loans for these types of businesses.
The people who rated the profitability of these containers just didn’t understand how they work or how much they could produce, he said. But instead of giving up, he pushed back.
Black farmers have faced discrimination in the past when trying to get USDA loans, and he was motivated to make sure his business plan was valued fairly.
“There’s a story behind it,” he said. “I was just one of many.”
Vitalis appealed the decision and won. Then he turned and asked for $ 200,000 instead – and got it.
Finally one day a semi-trailer with the containers stopped in front of his property, picked them up with a huge crane and placed them directly behind the nearby building.
“It was quite interesting to see a big old 40-foot container fly over a building,” said Vitalis. “It wasn’t easy, but God was on my side and I was able to take the hurdles that were put in my way.”
In a hydroponic farm everything is vertical – and everything is controlled.
The plants initially start as seedlings or seeds and are placed on shelves under LED lighting and supplied with nutrient-flushed water using attached machines.
After a few weeks, the plants will be large enough to transfer to a series of vertical plates that roll along rails. These panels are also connected to machines for dosing water and nutrients and placed between LED lights. The water circulating through the plants is stored and recycled through the system, saving water and nutrients.
Although space may seem tight, one container can produce the equivalent of 1,000 heads of lettuce each week, Katsiroubas said.
And throughout the process, Vitalis controls light, temperature, nutrients and water. The plants live in a perfectly closed ecosystem that is never threatened by drought, floods or pests.
“It has its own brain,” said Vitalis.
A huge benefit, he said, because he can grow food year round and doesn’t have to worry about pesticides or herbicides. It’s also “hyperlocal,” he said. When he receives an order, the food reaches the customer from the planter within a few hours.
David Bosley, Vitalis ‘former boss at Cummins Inc., used Vitalis’ vegetables for his Thanksgiving meal and said he was impressed with the packaging and freshness. At first the idea of a hydroponic farm came as a surprise.
“I thought it was pretty new,” he said, “but I also thought this was just like DeMario.”
Nobody was surprised that Vitalis took New Age precautions.
Bosley said he was always someone who tackled a project without giving up. And he was always a pioneer and hard worker, said his mother. She thinks that maybe he took it away from her as she had multiple jobs and attended school while taking care of him and his siblings.
“I’m even more excited about my son,” said Johnson. “He’s satisfying a need in the community and pursuing a dream. It was his vision and he made it a reality. “