A modest lot is on the east side of Indianapolis on 30th Street. From the outside it looks like an empty lot with a couple of shipping containers. But there is a whole garden in these containers.
And among the plants you will find DeMario Vitalis.
Vitalis is the first in Indiana to own a hydroponics farm within a shipContainer. The unique method is to plant seedlings of plants like herbs and lettuce on vertical panels and provide them with controlled amounts of water, nutrients and light – no soil required.
It’s a type of agriculture that is uniquely suited to urban environments. Vitalis is capable of producing nearly 5 acres of food per year from two 40-foot shipping containers. According to the company that makes the containers, it uses 99% less water than traditional agriculture.
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Vitalis sells its fresh herbs, salads and more to people in the community through online platforms like Market Wagon.
Air conditioning is a huge benefit for Vitalis, who set up his farm called New Age Provisions in the second half of last year. Regardless of the outside weather, he can grow whatever he wants.
“It can be 30 degrees outside and rain,” he said, “but it’s 65 degrees inside. Here I watch Netflix and plant seeds.”
Although he now spends much of his time planting, Vitalis was not a farmer when he started all of this. He was just an entrepreneur looking for his next venture, and farming – which was linked to his history as a descendant of enslaved people and southern partakers – 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.”
“It’s in his blood”
Vitalis was looking for something that could use a piece of property he owned, and he had a hunch that shipping containers were the key.
At first he thought he was going to build some modular tiny houses built out of containers. But then he came across Freight Farms, a Boston-based company that could pack 2.5 acres of production into one shipping container, and the decision was made.
Although Vitalis’ family was born in San Francisco, they are originally from the South. He moved around a lot before settling in Indiana.
“Three of my four grandparents started from the south,” said Vitalis. “So we were part of that 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 in 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 grew are “absolutely wonderful”.
“I just believe that you can always inspire someone with good food,” she said.
Even so, agriculture or food production was never something they did at home, she said. But she knows it’s something that family history makes him feel close.
“I think it was just in his blood,” she said.
Vitalis was one of the first black freight container owners in the country, said Caroline Katsiroubas, the company’s marketing and communications director.
“He specifically wanted to be a catalyst for more black farmers to join the freight farming community,” she said, “and I’ve definitely seen the impact.”
Overcome learning, finance hurdles
It was not easy to learn how to grow food.
Despite two degrees from Purdue University, Vitalis has no background in agriculture and had to undergo training before immersing himself in his urban farm. He took online classes 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 how to farm. You have to learn to react to the plants. “
Sometimes his daughter helps him plant. Johnson also helps and cuts plants, cleans or helps with 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 this wall of plants, I didn’t think it was possible.”
Funding was another obstacle. The farms cost $ 100,000 each.
After doing some research, Vitalis found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide loans for these types of businesses. He asked for $ 50,000 to help pay for a container and was immediately denied.
The people who rated the profitability of these containers just didn’t understand how it worked or how much it 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 this,” he said. “I was just one of many.”
Vitalis appealed the decision and won. Then he turned around 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 dropped them right behind the nearby building.
“It was pretty interesting to see a big old 40-foot container fly over a building,” said Vitalis. “It wasn’t easy, but you know God was on my side and I was able to overcome the hurdles that were put in my way.”
How hydroponics works
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 lights, and water flushed with nutrients is delivered to them with attached machines.
After a few weeks, the plants are large enough to be transferred to a series of vertical panels that roll along railroad tracks. These panels are also connected to machines for dispensing water and nutrients and placed between LED lights. The water circulating through the plants is stored and fed back through the system, which saves water and nutrients.
Although the space may seem tight, one container can hold 1,000 lettuce per week, Katsiroubas said.
During the entire 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.
That’s 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 comes from the planter into the customer’s hands within a few hours.
David Bosley, former head of Vitalis at Cummins, Inc., used Vitalis’ greens in his Thanksgiving meal and was impressed with the packaging and freshness. First of all, the idea of a hydroponic farm is surprising.
“I thought it was pretty new,” he said, “but I also thought it was just like DeMario.”
Nobody was surprised that Vitalis took New Age precautions.
He’s always been the kind of person who got on a project without giving up, Bosley said. And he was always a trailblazer and a hard worker, said his mother. She believes it’s something he may have picked up on from her since 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 fulfills a need in the church and follows a dream. It was his vision and he made it happen. “
Contact IndyStar reporter London Gibson at 317-419-1912 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @londongibson.
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IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the non-profit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.