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It’s almost harvest time, and Sonja Kinser couldn’t be happier. That harvest will be 100 or so radish plants that are currently being grown in a 320-square-foot semi-truck container in the parking lot at the Quad City Botanical Center in Rock Island.If all goes according to plan, that first harvest will happen in about two weeks in the hydroponics container farm – called a freight farm – capable of growing thousands of pounds of vegetables throughout the year for the Tapestry Farms organization. That group’s goal is to donate and sell the upcoming crops to food banks and businesses in the Quad Cities region. “Everybody seems to be really excited about this. We can now grow crops year round,” said Ms. Kinser, the hydroponics manager for Tapestry Farms. In a recent post on the Tapestry Farms Facebook page, there is a video of Ms. Kinser tending to some of the young plants with the message: “Here we grow! Our first hydroponic babies are moving from the nursery to the walls. First crop expected in March.” The climate-controlled environment in the freight farm means those crops can be grown anytime of the year – from the dead of winter to the hot, drought months of summer. “When it was super cold outside just a couple of weeks ago, it was a nice 70 degrees in here,” Ms. Kinser said on Monday, Feb. 5, as she tended more than 1,000 small vegetable plants that will eventually be harvested. Ms. Kinser is in charge of that freight farm. She works about 40 hours a week, doing many big and little jobs to help the small plants grow and become food. She also is optimistic that the new facility – which was introduced to the public on a cloudy, cold early December day – will soon be producing thousands of pounds of veggies. (Tapestry Farms now grows about 6,000 pounds of vegetables a year and donates them to local food banks. It will soon be able to double or triple that amount of food grown thanks to the help of the container farm, said Ann McGlynn, the founder and executive director of Davenport-based Tapestry Farms.) The John Deere Foundation donated $371,000 to support Tapestry Farms’ goal of acquiring the container farm. The freight farm harvest is moving along nicely, said Ms. Kinser. In addition to about 100 radish plants, the hydroponics has about 450 lettuce plants (three varieties of lettuce), 50 Swiss chard plants and watercress plants that are now growing on a cultivating wall inside the freight farm. In addition to those plants, there are about 1,000 younger plants in the “nursery” section of the farms. Those young plants are expected to be transplanted into the cultivating wall this Thursday, Feb. 8. “When I put these plants on the wall from the nursery, we’ll have one full of plants. That’s going to make me really happy,” Ms. Kinser told the QCBJ on Monday afternoon. What also is making Ms. Kinser happy is the veggies grown in the freight farm will soon be helping feed many people in the Quad Cities. In addition to donating food to the River Bend Food Bank, the grown crops will help the Genesis Health System’s Foodplex initiative. Plus, the veggies could also go to local businesses. For instance, on Friday she is scheduled to meet with the Blue Spruce General Store in Davenport to make plans for selling some of the veggies to that business. Ms. McGlynn said the first “primary market” for the food grown in the freight farm will be through the Iowa Local Food Purchasing Assistance Program, which has the goal of getting food to those people in need in communities. She added that the veggies grown in the freight farm could also eventually go to local schools and be sold at local farmers markets. “I’m just thrilled (the plants) are growing. It’s fun to watch this process unfold,” Ms. McGlynn said. Also, Ms. Kinser said another goal is to directly help people who are being served by Tapestry Farms. (That nonprofit organization helps refugees from African nations and many other places resettle in the Quad Cities. It also operates an urban farm system to grow food in the area.) Ms. Kinser added she hopes the freight farm will eventually expand its crops to include veggies and other plants that are more familiar to many of the refugees. The freight farms are capable of growing lettuces, leafy greens, herbs, brassicas, certain root vegetables, microgreens, edible flowers, and many other crops in any location, regardless of exterior climate. To date, freight farms have experimented with more than 500 different crop varieties. The self-contained freight farm can yield up to 12,000 pounds of produce a year – the equivalent of a 2.4-acre farm, according to information from the Boston-based Freight Farms company, which manufactures the freight containers. But before any crop expansion at the freight farm, there is still a lot of work to do. Ms. Kinser is responsible for the many jobs centered on growing the indoor crops. (She gets help from Ta Tapestry Farms contract worker. But for much of the time, the indoor farm jobs are a one-woman show.) Some of those jobs include seeding, transplanting the young plants and many maintenance jobs in the freight farm. Some of those jobs can be controlled from a laptop computer inside the freight container. For instance, the computer controls the thousands of small LED lights that are used in the growing process. Many of those blue and green lights are on 18 hours a day to help the plants grow at an accelerated rate. While the indoor growing process is moving forward, Ms. Kinser said the group had its own growing pains when they began the first crops a few weeks ago. She added the goal was to “hit the ground running” after the freight farm was introduced in December. But there were a few problems with the water lines, HVAC system, nutrient levels for the plants and some other challenges. But the challenges have been solved and the veggies are growing. “This shows that you’ve got to be flexible. … “We’re figuring it out one day at a time,” she added.
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