Pictured: Makena Whitaker-Co-Founder Around the Bend Farms
Communities facing food insecurities can be anywhere; in extremely remote areas, suburban neighborhoods, or urban centers. Sometimes they can be just around the bend, as is the case in Central Oregon where Around the Bend Farms is looking to change the landscape of what accessible food means. We caught up with Co-Founders Benjiman Marsh and Chris Fasan recently to learn more about their organization whose mission is to help create a future where fresh produce is accessible to all.
Around The Bend Farms is a non-profit organization that is working to build an urban agricultural community. The organization invests its time and resources into working with community members and other non-profit organizations to create small growing hubs interspersed throughout the city where people shop, eat and play. They want to remove barriers for those who have little or no access to affordable healthy fresh and nutritious produce.
The city of Bend, Oregon is located in the high desert, rain shadow side of the cascades mountain range, and in the early days the business model was to offer support in the form of traditional outdoor community gardens.
“One of the challenges with operating an outdoor community garden long term is that there is an incredibly short growing season” explained Benjiman.
In 2018 they collaborated on a project with engineering students at Oregon State University on a hydroponic system. “From there we realized that there was this whole hydroponic world we didn’t know about,” said Chris. This ignited a spark to do more research on hydroponics and controlled environment agriculture (CEA) and they looked at various options from container farming and various forms of hydroponic systems. It was at that time they stumbled across ZipGrow Inc.
One of their core projects is a collaboration with The Giving Plate (TGP), a community food relief outreach center in Bend, Oregon which is intentional in its efforts to remove the “clinical experience” of entering a food bank. Everyone they serve is welcomed as a guest.
The project incorporates a climate-controlled environment room within the existing building of the food pantry. The setup includes a ZipGrow™ Education Rack, seedling station, and HVAC and plumbing to support the system.
The ZipGrow™ Towers produce approximately 120 heads of lettuce in each 4-week growing cycle.
“What’s fantastic about ZipGrow systems,” said Benjiman “is that we can produce quality food quickly and get that out into the community…we love the flexibility of the Towers.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg as demand exceeds supply.
After disruptions from the pandemic, particularly with staffing, the team at Around The Bend Farms is gearing up for expansion to increase yields to get fresh food out to people who need it the most. They recently hired a farm manager Paige Welsh who runs the day-to-day operations and assists with scheduling, cleaning procedures and managing volunteers.
Some of the challenges they have faced have been with plumbing a system upstairs that integrates with the building’s existing plumbing, and keeping the farm enclosure cool enough during the really hot summer days. Both factors that a new purpose-built facility would eliminate.
TGP is in the process of renovating and expanding to a better suited facility to grow hydroponically. Around The Bend Farms’ current fundraising goal of $20,000 is to assist them in transforming this proven concept into a larger off-site operation that can handle all of their healthy leafy green supply demands in the future.
All produce from the grow room is given to TGP’s guests at no charge, but they need to pay for materials, supplies, and dedicated staff.
As a non-profit, all monies raised through Around the Bend Farms are through grassroots fundraising and grants. They want to grow possibilities throughout the community to start new projects and create a sustainable ecosystem. Since the start of their efforts, they have been fortunate to receive some local funding from several businesses and organizations in their region plus a small grant from Oregon Community Foundation (OCF).
“Whatever partners we can acquire along the way to meet those goals would be beneficial to the community,” adds Chris. “We want to avoid getting end of life produce, be able to grow quickly and provide fresh locally grown produce, then replicate this in other communities. We are comfortable with using the ZipGrow system moving forward because we are so familiar with them and have found it simple to work with.”
The founding members all have full-time jobs that come with knowledge and experience transferable to advancing these projects. They are pooling their talents to positively impact the place they call home. Interestingly, the team members don’t come from farming backgrounds, but they all have a green thumb and a strong passion to make a lasting difference.
Benjiman is a former high school biology teacher and helped run and maintain a traditional soil garden on campus, Chris has a background in brand strategy and design, and Makena (3rd Co-Founder) has a Master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition and owns a business providing nutritional services. On staff, they also have Russell Simpson, their lead designer who drafted and helped build the enclosure at The Giving Plate facility.
This Summer they have put together “make your own salad” kits for guests of The Giving Plate food pantry with recipe cards included. The Summer salad recipe includes lettuce, berries, green onions, hazelnuts, feta cheese, and fruity vinaigrette. They are also looking at full spectrum sustainability, and are using 100% compostable and biodegradable lettuce containers.
As fundraising efforts continue over the summer, we wish Benjiman and the team all the best to raise the funds necessary to make this significant venture possible.
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All photographs supplied by Around The Bend Farms Inc.