Alex Tyink, owner of Fork Farms of Green Bay, fell in love with gardening on a rooftop in Brooklyn, New York. It was an unlikely detour for Tyink, an opera singer who found himself with extra time between performances. Couped up in his apartment and dealing with some depression, he volunteered to help with the rooftop farm.
"The garden was created by a sculptor, and it was a cool social model where the food he was growing went to friends, family, and a food pantry that was located on the lower level of the building. It was a neat ecosystem and it was where I learned to grow hydroponically," Tyink explained.
He says it was the single most transformative event in his life. When he ate the food, he discovered that it not only contributed to his overall health, it was also an antidote to depression.
"When you put your own sweat into something, you can't help but become more emotionally attached. Involvement and engagement breeds connection and connection leads to real, sustainable change," he commented on his website.
In his business, he hopes to share those benefits. Simply defined, hydroponic gardening is a method of growing plants without soil by adding nutrients directly into the water supply. The benefits include faster growth, year-round growing, healthier plants, bigger yields, and pesticide-free produce.
What he discovered initially was that the cost per pound produced was high. In starting Fork Farms in 2010 as a consultant, he sought to utilize state of the art technology while researching ways to lower the costs of indoor gardening to create a more effective system.
"I did more than a dozen installations and was learning every step of the way. The need to reduce costs was the inspiration for my design work. It took three years to figure it out, 30 plus prototypes and a ton of my own money. I was tinkering, but I was passionate," he noted. In 2012, by paying close attention to how all of the pieces fit together, he stumbled onto the idea of using the right light with the right reflective surfaces. That lowered the kilowatt hours, and made the process more energy-efficient.
"We were able to grow for less than half the cost that others were doing. At that point, my plan was to move to Madison, build these systems, and be a farmer," he said.
The plan changed when he was offered a job in 2016 as program director for Goodwill NCW. Goodwill, along with Bassett Mechanical, supported him as he developed Flex Farm Generation 1, a hydroponic system made out of stainless steel. He did eight field test installations and received encouraging feedback.
In 2016, he left Goodwill and formed a partnership with Feeding America, where he also served as director of programs and innovation. From there, progress has been steady. An angel investor came onboard and a seed capital round in 2018 raised $750,000. Tyink was getting noticed and Fork Farms won the THINC! Innovation Award.
"My co-founder says the reason he invested in me is that I have the ability to pick things up quickly," he stated. "I think the thing that motivates me is helping people. I'm not doing this for the money; you don't get into this sort of thing thinking you will be a millionaire. You do it because you have this deep need to see it through and because you believe in it."
Now, with the launch of Flex Farm Generation 4, there have been over 500 Flex Farm installations completed in 22 states and Canada. The market for the product, which he says is the latest and greatest innovation in indoor, vertical farming technology, is huge and has global promise.
The major markets include commercial users such as kitchens and cafeterias, nonprofit organizations looking for ways to increase access to healthy and fresh food, educators as a way to provide a learning tool for students and food for the school and community, and home users who are seeking a year-round source for fresh food.
Because of the pandemic and fear of a breakdown in the food supply chain, Tyink said the business is adapting the business to a new environment. From his headquarters at TitletownTech in Green Bay (a partnership between the Green Bay Packers and Microsoft that identifies, builds and funds early-stage, high growth businesses), he says that he finds it amazing to see how far the business has come.
"I think this is something that will be everywhere; a method of growing that seeps into all parts of our lives," he commented. "Hindsight being 2020, I have to say that this whole experience has been the greatest learning experience of my life. I am just really grateful."
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and Past District Director for SCORE, Wisconsin.