Residents of Grant County could have the option of fresh kale, lettuce and other produce delivered to their doorsteps as early as May 2019 once Bill Reece, a businessman with Marion roots, launches his newest venture, Eat Fresh 52.
Reece runs a hydroponic farm, called Foliaj Farms, out of a warehouse on 12th and Branson streets in Marion, where he grows romaine lettuce, red and green leaf lettuce, kale, basil and a variety of microgreens.
He's hoping to expand his production in both volume and variety to prepare for roll out of the delivery service, likely adding tomatoes and strawberries to the portfolio in 2019.
Customers of Eat Fresh 52 will be able to create an order online, specifying which produce they would like and how much, and receive the delivery in an Eat Fresh 52 cooler customers can leave on their doorstep.
While romaine lettuce nationwide is being recalled, Reece said there's no chance his romaine is contaminated because his produce is grown with no possible exposure to animal products.
That's one of the advantages of hydroponic farming, according to Reece.
At Foliaj Farms, produce is grown without soil using a hydroponic method called deep water culture.
Plants are suspended, using foam rafts, in a water solution that is pumped full of oxygen and infused with a fertilizer to provide nutrients. Specialized lamps provide the subsitute for sunlight in the indoor farm.
Reece said this method of farming requires very little labor and much of the daily tending to the plants can be done remotely, using a computer system that monitors chemical levels in the water.
Reece grew up in Marion and attended Marion High School but has spent most of his adult life on the East Coast and in Miami, Florida, where he now lives. But Reece has been spending a lot of time in Marion lately launching several businesses, including renovating and installing several businesses in the former bank at 100 S. Washington St.
Reece's health care-focused yoga studio, Sender Wellness, is already up and running, and he is planning on bringing in a cafe serving vegan options, coffee and possibly alcoholic beverages. A turnkey-rental office space is also in the works in that same building.
He said the inspiration for the farm and the delivery service came during a conversation with a friend who works in agriculture technology, when he came to the realization that people in his hometown did not have easy access to nutritious and affordable produce.
Although Marion has several grocery stores, the USDA still designates the area as a food desert because of the overlapping issues of low-income population and low access to nutritious food.
One of the issues with produce in Indiana, too, is that vegetables and fruit consumed in the state are shipped across the country from California and Arizona, according to Reece.
During that journey, greens can lose much of their nutritional value, in addition to the environmental impact of transporting that produce.
A proponent of environmental causes, Reece said one of his primary goals is to “keep it local.” Eat Fresh 52 will only deliver within 25 miles of the warehouse, Reece said. He said the result is that the produce he delivers will be more nutritious than grocery store-bought varieties.
Reece also plans on letting the neighborhood he's growing in make its mark.
“I don't want to be the middle aged white guy coming in and making the neighborhood what I want it to be,” Reece said. He plans to open up two of the sides of the warehouse for “anything-goes graffiti,” a blank canvas for neighborhood kids to play on.
Reece wants his product to be affordable, too, something he said will be possible because of the other costs he doesn't have, such as transportation, and the low cost of real estate in Marion.
Marion is just Reece's first location. The businessman has dreams of hydroponic farms serving rural areas all over the state and even the country.
At a meeting of the Marion Rotary Club, where Reece spoke about his new ventures last week, club member and County Council member Mike Roorbach asked Reece whether these businesses could be sustainable.
"Any business can fail," Reece said. "But we're far enough along where we've crossed some of the hurdles."
Reece told the Rotary Club he'd like to see "a healthy ecosystem" of companies that can feed off each other's successes in Marion, an ecosystem including networks of capital that could be invested start-ups.
He said that he has heard from people "on the economic development side" of Grant County that Marion is "not ready for this (kind of business) yet."
"I want to stretch where Marion's thinking is in terms of business and economic development," Reece said in response.