The low-standing row of strip mall-style warehouses on Oak Street in Hackensack doesn’t look like much more than what it is – an industrial complex on a dead end in a commercial corner of the city.

It’s what is going on in that seemingly stereotypical industrial setting, however, that makes the building much different than those in the surrounding area. The warehouse is home to Greens Do Good, a hydroponic vertical farm that will produce an abundance of vegetables while providing a glimpse of what is possible in an area of New Jersey largely devoid of farmland.

Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants, or – in this case – vegetables, without soil in nutrient-rich water. Inert material, such as vermiculite or peat moss, is used a soil replacement. One of the benefits of hydroponic farming is that plants can grow as much as 25 percent faster and produce up to 30 percent more than plants grown in soil, according to fullbloomhydroponics.net.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the chance that the hydroponic farm represents. The farm was created by Greens Do Good, a company that promotes local community sourcing of healthy produce in a sustainable and responsible way. The proceeds from all the produce sold will go to REED Next, which is committed to providing adults with Autism habilitation services, pre-vocational training, community-based support and supported employment. The program, which will allows adults in the REED Next Program the opportunity to work alongside the farmers at Greens Do Good, is open to all adults on the spectrum.

“Fifty thousand people with Autism age out of the school system when they turn 21,” said Jill Nadison, executive director REED Next. “We thought, ‘What could we create to help them?’ This creates sustained produce for our customers and sustained employment to adults with Autism in our community. Autism affects more than one in 59 Americans and one in 34 in New Jersey, which is the highest rate in the country.”

The Hackensack-based farm was officially launched and opened for business on April 2, which is World Autism Awareness Day. The warehouse space is occupied by two rows consisting of eight-foot by four-foot, three-tiered towers. There is space for two more sets of towers, which are expected to be installed in the near future.

The produce includes a wide variety of greens ranging from kale and lettuce to wasabi, basil, edible flowers and other micro greens. Most of the vegetables and plants grown will be ready for harvest in a just over a month’s time. The farm recycles and reuses its water (simple tap water from Hackensack) after it has been run through four filters to eliminate any chemicals or additives. There are no pesticides because they aren’t needed in a hydronic, controlled environment and the entire setup is 100 percent vegan. Produce can also be grown year-round.

“We use 95 percent less water than traditional agriculture,” Farm General Manager Christopher Leishear said. “We use the same 250 gallons of water recycled over 30 days. And, the threat of weeds is minimal so we aren’t using pesticides and herbicides. We are chemical free and it’s pretty low tech.”

Leishear, who previously spent nearly two dozen years working for IBM, has a Bachelor of Arts in environmental science from the University of Virginia, an Master of Business Administration from Arizona State in international business and marketing and an Master of Science from NYU in global affairs concentrating on energy and environmental policy. He hopes for a second farm to be started within 12 months and a third farm within 24 months. The only issue would be finding additional locations. Otherwise the startup costs are low. According to Leishear, many of the materials to get a location started – other than the building – can be purchased at Lowe’s or Home Depot for a relatively low cost.

The farm’s customer base is located within a 25-mile radius of Hackensack and includes restaurants, specialty markets, caterers and country clubs, such as Edgewood in River Vale. There will be no direct sales to the public.

“I support local farmers and it makes sense to include this on the menu,” Edgewood Executive Chef Anthony Villanueva said. “I want to help promote them and promote healthy, local produce.”

There will be eight to 10 adults with Autism working as part-time employees, helping with operations, such harvesting, labeling and packaging the produce. If there is a surplus of produce it may go to The Reed Academy, a school that teaches autistic children between the ages of 3 and 21, in Oakland. The farm is also working on developing a relationship with Eva’s Village, a Paterson-based food pantry.

“Vertical farming with hydroponics is a key part of how we will feed the world in the future,” Leishear said. “We are transforming the way our local community sources healthy produce by providing the freshest ingredients in a sustainable and socially responsible way.”

Greens Do Good is partially funded by a grant from the New Jersey Health Department’s Special Child Health and Autism Registry. For more information on how to purchase produce or become a community partner with REED Next, write to info@greensdogood.com.

By Kevin Czerwinski

Photo Courtesy Danielle Weidner

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