Island Grown Initiative greenhouse offers first harvest to Island schools

— Photo by Randi Baird

Vineyard school children may be eating local, fresh, greenhouse salad greens all winter if a price point for the hydroponically grown roughage can be reached that works for the schools and the Island Grown Initiative (IGI), a local nonprofit that is growing the food.

IGI, a group that supports sustainable agriculture, local food advocacy and education, harvested their first crop of hydroponically grown salad greens from its greenhouse at the nonprofit’s 41-acre Thimble Farm off the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs on Monday, November 18. Hydroponics is a system that grows plants in a solution of mineral rich water instead of soil.

The greens will be packaged on site and will be offered to all Island school cafeterias to taste and to sample prior to working out an arrangement to sell the produce to the schools.

IGI farm manager Keith Wilda invited school cafeteria directors to see and taste the product firsthand last week. Melinda DeFeo, an IGI founding board member who is the Edgartown School’s farm to school coordinator, said of the produce, “It’s so beautiful and so vibrant, you eat it and you can just feel it go to work. It would be so wonderful to be able to offer it to our kids, if we can get the price right.”

She said the Edgartown School’s kitchen could use about 35 pounds of greens a week. Forty pounds of IGI greens were delivered to the West Tisbury School on Tuesday.

Sarah McKay, IGI president, said she is not sure if the greenhouse can provide all of the schools’ salad needs. “We are in test mode right now and still working on getting up to speed,” she said. “We are making repairs to the greenhouse, electrical repairs, insulating. The space itself is not up to full production capacity at this point.”

Ms. McKay said IGI is working with the schools and other markets to learn what the demand is and what the market can bear in terms of pricing. “We are working with a lot of different variables at the moment. Our initial push is to provide greens for the schools. From there we want to make things available to others in restaurants and local markets.”

The salad mixtures are made of nine leafy greens, and because they are grown hydroponically, without dirt, and refrigerated immediately after harvest they have a long shelf life, Ms. McKay said. “In an early test harvest, Keith showed me that were still in pretty good shape after 19 days,” she said.

There are three full-time greenhouse employees, including Mr. Wilda, and a number of volunteers helping out.

“We can produce about 220 pounds of greens a week in the 40 percent of the greenhouse we are working in right now,” Mr. Wilda said.

Hired in early spring, Mr. Wilda has worked since May making repairs to the 33,000-square-foot, 20-plus-year-old greenhouse. The hydroponic system that feeds the produce was updated and he expects to expand production the first of the year to include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and strawberries.

The first of the year will also see the beginnings of an aquaculture component. Mr. Wilda said that he plans to raise trout.

IGI programs include Island Grown Schools, a farm-to-school program, Island Grown Meat, Island Grown Poultry, Island Grown Bees, Island Grown Gleaning, Apprentices, and Thimble Farm. IGI and their individual programs have worked with Island farm and conservation groups and have received grant support from both state and local organizations. They got a major boost last summer when three wealthy seasonal residents funded the group’s purchase of Thimble Farm with the greenhouse that was built in the 1980s by former owners Will and Patricia Moscow.

IGI stated in a press release, “we hope to offer local schools and Island institutions the opportunity to purchase local greens and vegetables when our Island’s farmers fields are dormant to increase the amount of locally grown produce available to our community year-round.”