MILWAUKEE — Hundred Acre isn’t just a name, it’s a goal.
Sitting inside of an industrial park off 31st and Capitol in the Century City Business Park, owner Chris Corkery and his small team of farmers operate Milwaukee’s largest vertical indoor hydroponic farm.
When you step inside the glass door of their 3,000 square foot warehouse, your eyes adjust to the specialty lighting illuminating the space. You inhale the savory aroma of fresh basil, completely forgetting that you’re steps away from pothole filled streets and car exhaust fumes.
“We are playing mother nature,” Corkery said to describe Hundred Acre’s innovative approach to farming salad blends and basil. “No matter what’s going on outside — snow, heat wave, or whatever Wisconsin likes to throw at people — it’s consistent in here.
“It’s called controlled environmental sciences. We built out a box with an advanced infrastructure inside that recreates mother nature to offer perfect growing conditions 365 days-per-year.”
Hydroponic farming is agriculture without soil.
Seeds are planted in a nursery, or propagation room, where they germinate and grow for a little more than one week before being carefully moved to the racks. Here, they are cared for under lighting before being harvested and packaged three weeks later to be immediately distributed to retailers, customers and the community.
“It’s a single cut,” Corkery explained while touring the facility. “Meaning our staff cuts it once, puts it immediately into bags and boxes.
“From seed to sale, it has been inside of this sterile environment the entire time. It’s safe and ready to eat. It’s the Willy Wonka of produce.”
Corkery makes sure everyone who walks through the growing area has avoided exposure to chemicals and possible contaminants, further ensuring elongated shelf life and stability for the crops.
“The process of growing (this way) goes back to the basics. It’s 100% natural,” he said. “We just use organic compounds and a purified water source.
“We are more pure and cleaner, with less risk, because we are not dealing with outdoor elements, like pests and other contaminants.”
Hydroponic farming also saves water.
“We use 95 percent less water than a traditional farm,” he explained. “It’s a closed loop system. There is no run-off. There is no loss. The only water we lose is plants sucking it up and perspiring, which is the process of growing.”
Hundred Acre harvests one-fourth of their crops each week. This schedule allows them to maximize their limited space and ensure that freshness valued by customers.
Currently, their salad blends and basil are available in the retail co-op Outpost. They’re also served in the suites and press room at America Family Field through a relationship with Black Shoe Hospitality.
Corkery elaborates that community support, as well as efficiency, are key for a small business like Hundred Acre because bringing farming to the city is expensive. Real estate is costly, and the necessary lighting doesn’t come at a discounted rate.
However, their open-door policy and willingness to educate both high school and college students interested in hydroponics makes the operating costs worthwhile.
“What’s good for the community is good for business, and vice versa,” he said.
Harvesting more than 50,000 lbs. of their produce per year, this innovative space supports multiple local jobs. All of Hundred Acre’s current employees currently live within 10 miles of the farm.
“I’ve never seen a hydroponic farm in the heart of a city,” said Francesca Zizzo, Supervisor at Hundred Acre, who bring experience with soli farming in the pacific northwest, California, and Colorado. “We are very small. Other farms operate on massive scales, which leaves a lot more room for errors. I like how small, and family oriented we are.”
Daily, farmers are tasked with caring for the plants, treatments, cleaning, harvesting, and packaging — skills that are generally learned on larger outdoor farms and not common in the city limits.
These skills and dedication have the potential to create more growth and opportunity right here in Milwaukee.
“It’s hard work,” added Zizzo. “It’s not for everyone.”
Corkery said that the ultimate goal is to grow Hundred Acre into a network of 100 urban farms, right here in this area. Each one specializes in different produce that meets the needs and demands of the community and retail partners alike.
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