Better Living through Hydroponics:
How greenhouses improve our community and economy
Where does retail meet reuse, for-profit meet non-profit, nature meet technology and hungry meet healthy?
Right here in Northeast Ohio.
Specifically, inside the Galleria—thanks to Vicky Poole, Director of Marketing & Events at the Galleria and Tower at Erieview, who created Gardens Under Glass, an umbrella project for sustainability initiatives.
Funded by a Civic Innovation Lab grant, Gardens Under Glass grew from Poole’s curiosity about vertical growing, her belief in the local green movement and her desire to cultivate the Galleria’s unique qualities as a dynamic downtown space.
“Often space is labeled for a purpose or a function and lost due to environmental or economic change,” Poole stated. “It is just as important to allow existing space to evolve, just as our lives do.”
Her search led her to hydroponics, and the efforts of two interrelated green initiatives: the for-profit BioDynamicz and the non-profit Hy-Hopes for Hunger.
By amassing generous donations—a glasshouse from Arcadia GlassHouse, a solar energy system from Dove Tail Solar and Wind, a solar tracking system from Sun Flower Solutions and a Nutrient Film Technique hydroponic system and digital nutrient solution monitoring system from CropKing, Inc.—a hydroponic greenhouse was born.
Tim Madden, President of BioDynamicz, assisted in its installation inside the Galleria’s glass atrium.
With business development counseling from Tom Fontana and the Akron SCORE, Madden had established BioDynamicz as a means to support Hy-Hopes for Hunger, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that sprouted from the soul of Executive Director Monica Cowan. Like Poole, Cowan combines her life’s passion with her day job’s inspiration—in this case, working in the clinical mental health profession as a child counselor.
“My heart in doing that is really helping people reach their full potential, and I realized that individuals can’t reach their full potential if they don’t have basic needs met—you know, it’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Cowan said. “And so it’s really about trying to create a systemic change, and helping people thrive by providing them with the nutrition that they need.”
Like hands in soil, Hy-Hopes for Hunger tills Northeast Ohio to enrich its communities. The grassroots initiative uses the greenhouse as a hub for food production through hydroponics and sustainability education through demonstration.
“This becomes a hands-on way of educating the community, and especially kids, about the benefits of eating locally, organically, and just eating produce—healthy food,” Cowan said.
Within community greenhouses, students grow, pick, pluck and taste high quality food, ingesting nutrients as well as knowledge.
Poole, who hosts similar school group demonstrations for Gardens Under Glass, said, “We need to make sure that our children don’t lose the skills of our forefathers. We want to give them the opportunity to have hands-on experiences and to perhaps learn from our mistakes.”
Yet all community members, not just children, will benefit from the food boom. To make fresh, healthy produce accessible and affordable in Northeast Ohio, Hy-Hopes for Hunger will construct and operate commercial greenhouses in the local community.
“When you put up a one-acre to ten-acre-plus greenhouse locally, you’re starting to mitigate hunger,” Cowan said.
As a parallel to the cyclical production of crops, profits from the commercial greenhouses become funds for the educational greenhouses.
Madden said, “That’s really the business model that in my opinion is going to work in the short term, rather than trying to build these large-scale facilities and operate them at a loss and then just donate 100% of the produce to a food bank. The model that seems like it’s much more viable that can get a lot more attention and a lot more support a lot faster is: build the facilities, donate a portion of the produce to charity right off the bat, but then use the bulk of the produce to actually turn a profit, and then use that profit to be able to support the work of the non-profit and further the humanitarian goals of the organization.”
The ultimate dream, however, is to get greenhouse-grown produce directly to the people who most need it. Cowan sees unlimited advantages to using local greenhouses: no run-off, no pesticides, no carbon emissions from transportation, no unripe produce. To spread the positive effects across Northeast Ohio, Cowan encourages everyone to get involved.
“Show up at the fundraisers and support us financially as well as buying our food, locally, and really contributing to this initiative,” Cowan said. “We would love to have people help us with being onsite when we initiate farmers markets”
To bring people and resources together, Hy-Hopes for Hunger and Gardens Under Glass are creating partnerships with local schools, universities, food banks, non-profits, community gardens, farms and agricultural initiatives.
Due to the fact that hydroponic greenhouses offer a 12-month, 365-day-a-year growing cycle, they bestow a particular boon upon Ohio, where agriculture must halt in winter—that is, until now. With hydroponic technology, we have the potential for year-round farmers’ markets, fresh food cooking demonstrations, community gardening events and more.
Eager to begin changing and saving lives, Cowan and Madden seek investors who can help them overcome the obstacle of the start-up cost.
“We can create several different models of investments, but it can really either be you get a percentage of the amount that you invest, per year, or individuals may also purchase greenhouses and generate a consistent revenue stream that way as well,” Cowan said. “They would be contributing to this positive, sustainable movement that really is benefiting the community as well as supporting their investment. There’s a twofold benefit to it, and it’s a reliable investment, guaranteed.”
Hydroponic greenhouses maximize the efficiency of crop production. The digital controls in the greenhouse monitor the temperature, humidity, pH and nutrient solution.
Madden said, “You’re perfectly replicating what the plant needs without providing any of the things that it doesn’t need, so you’re increasing the positive environmental factors and decreasing the negative environmental factors, which allows you to produce very high quality, consistent product.”
Although computers and plants may seem to belong to separate worlds, Madden points out that 21st century farmers are sowing the future of agriculture with a scientist’s level of awareness.
“Farming, period, these days you’re implementing some very sophisticated technology,” Madden said. “A lot of them have combines that are worth a million bucks or more a piece, and they use GPS to perfectly track the planting and the harvesting of their crops. They use soil analysis. And hydroponics, we’re doing pretty much the same thing; we’re just going a little further.”
Madden has full confidence that any prospective Gardens Under Glass volunteer would be able to operate the controls.
“Most people know how to use a computer, and the controls for the hobby greenhouses are no more difficult than using a digital air conditioner or using a computer at home,” Madden said. “And as far as the harvesting and the produce and the planting of the seeds, it’s very similar to what you would do in an outside garden.”
Gardens Under Glass attracts dedicated volunteers who, apart from their love for gardening, defy easy categorization.
“We have volunteers from all walks of life,” Poole said. “They love it so much they’re willing to come here after their professional work day. There’s a woman who walks down 9th Street and calls me up saying she’s here for Gardens Under Glass to do weeding and watering.”
These gardeners have a special reason to come downtown: the knowledge that they are revivifying Northeast Ohio.
“They’re visionaries in their own right,” Poole said. “They have a commitment to Cleveland, and we all want to see any businesses return.”
To allow a sustainable ecosystem to bloom within the Galleria, Poole is pursuing “sustainability initiatives such as rainwater collection, composting, recycling, anti-litter campaigns, local watersheds and energy renewal.”
The Galleria’s future is already looking greener. Its mint garden grows basil, oregano, tarragon, rosemary, thyme and peppers, which can then be dried and infused in oils and vinegars and sold to restaurants in the food court like Mixed Greens Salad Bar, Stone Oven, Café Sausalito’s.
Poole’s philosophy of reuse attracted Encore Women’s Consignment Shop (“People from out of town are amazed; they say it looks like a boutique,” Poole said) and Fra Angelica, which sells recycled jewelry and knitwear handcrafted by local artisans. Eco Tuesdays, a networking event for business leaders who believe in the sustainability mission, is held on the fourth Tuesday of every month in the Galleria’s Resource Center classroom.
And with a 1500-person capacity for corporate events, a floor space that can seat up to 400 people and a dance floor, a curtain that transforms the Food Court into a Rotunda and a glass ceiling that boasts an awe-inspiring evening skyscape, the Galleria has established a viable, even enviable, event business.
Manufacturing Mart, through a permanent tradeshow inside the Galleria, works with green technology companies and other engineering businesses to connect them with suppliers.
“We’re relocating businesses that would want to move downtown—businesses over three years old looking to expand or change,” Poole said. “There are deals to be had and beautiful spaces to be filled. You can move to the suburbs and do business, but there’s a downtown energy that everybody embraces and wants to be a part of.”
Per Poole’s suggestion, Madden decided to move BioDynamicz into the Galleria.
“I took a big risk,” Madden said. “I had an established business for four years in Cuyahoga Falls and I was doing very well there, and I kind of went out on a limb to move my company here to the Galleria because I really believe that we’re going to be able to turn our economy around. I really believe in Cleveland’s green movement, and wanted to be centrally located right here in downtown Cleveland and lead by example. We actually are able to draw new customers into the Galleria that would not be here unless we were here. We’re growing our business and we’re growing our organization, but we’re also helping grow Cleveland’s economy and grow the Galleria.”
And so, through BioDynamicz and Gardens Under Glass, we find ourselves returning to the Galleria. We’re returning, through Hy-Hopes for Hunger, to the impoverished, malnourished parts of Northeast Ohio that we have long ignored. We’re returning to people and to the land. To connection, and to imagination. We’re returning to healthiness and nature and optimism.
We’re returning to our potential.
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