March 5, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 10

Feature

Greening the city

By Alexandra Bolton / Editorial Intern

Inside the Belltown basement of Millionair Club, a hydroponic farm promises major growth potential

Chris Bajuk displays the clean root system of a fully grown head of lettuce. The silver sheeting on the walls maximizes the reflection of the light back onto the plants.

Photo by Alexandra Bolton / Editorial Intern

Instead of soil, these butter lettuces float in nutrient-enhanced water. They are able to grow at a high density with minimal care.

Photo by Alexandra Bolton / Editorial Intern

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Eating local has taken on a new dimension with the establishment of a commercial hydroponic farm in the basement of the Millionair Club Charity, 2515 Western Ave. Millionair Club recently hired Chris Bajuk, founder of Seattle farming company Urban Harvest, to develop 250 square feet of floor space into a garden-producing mixture of salad greens.

Millionair Club is a nonprofit with a mission of restoring dignity and fostering self-reliance in those it serves. Services include a long-term employment program, day labor and two meals each weekday.

Profits from the hydroponic farm will be reinvested into the Millionair Club and used to indirectly create more jobs for those in the employment programs.

Hydroponic farming does not use soil. Instead, the maturing heads of lettuce in Millionair Club’s plot are suspended in water fortified with nutrients. These crops not only require less space but also one-tenth the water of traditional farming with no associated runoff or pollution. The system Bajuk has designed is a model of energy efficiency, using LED grow lights, fans, water-soluble mineral salts and water from the tap.

“We can do it basically anywhere: inside a building, in a greenhouse or potentially even [on] a rooftop,” Bajuk said of hydroponic gardening. Consumers can feel good about the product, too. Though not USDA “organic,” Bajuk said his methods are clean and sustainable. He expects high demand for the locally grown food, regardless of the label.

“My gut feeling is that this is the start of something, but at the same time it comes down to the customer’s willingness to pay,” said Bajuk, admitting that the quality produce does come at a cost.

“It costs us more to grow the vegetables than it does down in a big field in California,” Bajuk said. “That’s why instead of growing things like iceburg lettuce we’re growing fancy lettuce and basil. Because they’re higher value items.”

The increased price hasn’t deterred interest from local businesses, including the Millionair Club’s first customer, Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria. Capacity limits the variety of crops and customer base for now, but Jim Miller, executive director of Millionair Club, has long-term ambitions for the project.

“Our biggest challenge is going to be securing the capital funds for expansion. We’d like to be in a 5,000 square-foot facility in the next 18 months,” Miller said.

Space in the basement is already being cleared for the installment of micrograins. Micrograins are plants harvested when they’re young and are full of flavor and nutrients, between 10 days to 2 weeks old, according to Bajuk.

Even with expansion, Millionair Club isn’t going to need as many employees for its hydroponic farm, because hydroponically grown crops require minimal care. However, hydroponics has already been incorporated into the Millionair Club’s kitchen training program. Trainees will eventually learn about urban farming and associated kitchen skills. Hydroponics further supports the charity’s goals by generating revenue to support current and upcoming initiatives.

While the majority of the hydroponic crop will be sold wholesale to restaurants, 10 percent of the produce will go back into the food system through the charity’s meal program and those of other nonprofits, food banks and social services agencies.

“There’s really a lack of fresh produce in the system for the people we serve,” said Miller. Noting the malnutrition common in the homeless population, Miller stressed the necessity of continuing to provide salads at meals, even through the winter months, to ensure that vulnerable people have access to the disease fighting-nutrients greens provide.

“It’s been really gratifying,” Bajuk said. “We’ve been serving most of our lettuce upstairs. I harvest it and put it in big plastic bins and take it up to Terry, our chef, and he mixes up salads.”

Bajuk said there is a particular need for leafy greens in the Northwest, where a majority are often imported. Greens also grow quickly, in approximately 6 to 8 weeks, making them less susceptible to disease than crops grown in soil.

Pairing his environmental passion with a social mission, Bajuk has produced both heads of lettuce and considerable interest from the community.

“We’re really excited to work with the public in Seattle to try and make this a growing industry,” Bajuk said.

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