Environment / Roundups / Social justice

Wilmington’s first vertical farm clears a final hurdle

An amendment to the City Code was needed for Second Chances Farm, which aims to employ people returning from the prison system with urban agriculture jobs, to start operating in its Northeast location.

The mayor's chief of staff Tanya Washington and Mayor Mike Purzycki show off recently harvested hydroponic lettuce from Second Chance Farms. (Photo by Holly Quinn)

A lot of things have had to come together in order to make Second Chances Farm, founded by entrepreneur and TEDxWilmington organizer emeritus Ajit George, a reality.

As an Opportunity Zone project, there were applications and approvals; a reentry program was established with a Delaware Department of Corrections contractor; a location on Bowers Street in Northeast Wilmington was secured.

There was one more detail: The City of Wilmington, which has been supportive of the program that aims to employ people returning from the prison system with $15-an-hour “green collar” urban agriculture jobs, had to officially put it in writing that indoor farms are permitted in the city.

On Wednesday, July 17, at the offices of Second Chance Farms on West 13th Street, the legislation sponsored by City Council member Zanthia Oliver, which amended Chapter 48 of the City Code to permit indoor commercial horticultural operations, was signed by Mayor Mike Purzycki.

A small version of the hydroponic unit is up and running in the office, growing four tiers of lettuce and basil under the cool LED lights; the units that will be in the Northeast location — 400 of them — will be eight tiers high.

Evan Bartle lifts some basil plants to show their soil-less roots.

Evan Bartle lifts some basil plants to show their soilless roots. (Photo by Holly Quinn)

“There’s no soil used, just water,” said Evan Bartle, chief growing officer for Second Chances Farm, lifting a panel of basil plants to show the roots. What looks like soil at the base of the plants is actually rockwool — “rock that has been spun out like cotton candy,” Bartle said. The reusable medium, a standard in commercial hydroponics, is used to support the plants above the water.

After signing the amendment, they mayor ceremonially cut the first leaves of lettuce with (slightly) oversized golden scissors and had a taste.

“This is the baby lettuce that restaurants love,” said George. (And, yes, it tastes very good — members of the press were also given samples of the lettuce to try.)

When the farm official opens on Bowers Street, in a building conveniently named The Opportunity Center, it will provide jobs for returning citizens with the goal of reducing recidivism in Wilmington, while providing locally grown, chemical-free produce to businesses in the region.

In addition to the vertical farm, the facility will offer services including CrossFit or a gym to employees and community members.

Check out more pics from the event:

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