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P.E.A.C.E. Project: The “Pueblo Ecology and Arts Center for Empowerment” Urban Farming Business Incubator

Demonstrating sustainable indoor growing techniques and job-training using new forms of agriculture technologies for Southern Colorado.

Photo of Dr. Kelly Gehlhoff
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Perpetual Harvest, LLC

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Pueblo Food Council (Small NGO with fewer than 50 employees), Southern Colorado Economic Development District (small NGO), Pueblo Diversified Industries (Large NGO with over 50 employees), FarmBox Foods (small company), The I WILL Projects (Small NGO), Protegete (Small NGO), E.A.S.T. (Small NGO), We Are FARMily (Small NGO), Pueblo Sustainable Solutions (small company), All Pueblo Grows (Small NGO), Pueblo Permaculture (small company), Soul to Soil (small company)

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Pueblo

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Pueblo County

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

I want my children and future generations to have a sense of food sovereignty and remain connected to nature – that is why I continue to work towards getting gardens, even if they are indoors, in all of our schools. In order to best support the localization of our food system, we need more agricultural career pathways.

Now we are at a perfect nexus to see the merging of technology and agriculture provide innovative ways to grow food with less water, less labor, less pesticides, less land and less travel from farm to fork. It sounds like a win-win scenario. Except that small businesses or non-profits rarely have the six figures of capital required to purchase indoor farming equipment, let alone the electricity to operate it. That is why I put forth Pueblo as a place worth placing global attention as a future food innovation hub – our community would benefit from a demonstration and job-training project like P.E.A.C.E. in so many ways, environmentally, socially and economically.

Recently our County created the Pueblo Food Council to help oversee sustainability of our food system. This effort was spurred by Senator Bennett’s office last April to engage stakeholders in the visioning process and identify priorities. Pueblo is growing a cohesive network and branding strategy to support people who produce food here. However, we need more education and tangible solutions to food insecurity that will last. The childhood food insecurity level for Pueblo County is 19.3%, according to feedingamerica.org. The adult food insecurity and unemployment rates are higher in our area than the rest of the state. P.E.A.C.E. Project aims to address both of these social problems by showing people what is possible with new forms of farming technology and inspiring people to choose urban farming.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Pueblo County sits directly east of the Rocky Mountains, just 100 miles south of Denver, Colorado. This geographic area ranges from mountainous foothills to rolling plains of farmland. We have a moderate, high-desert climate with a shadow from the nearby mountains that adds constant weather variability. Being at the confluence of the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek provides a consistent water supply, especially for thirsty crops like corn, squash, tomatoes, melons and grain for cattle. Recently, Pueblo’s spicy chile peppers have become popularized, even branded and in competition with our Southern New Mexico neighbors in Hatch. Farmers here grow everything from beets, onions, garlic, pumpkins and cabbage to cucumbers, honeydew and cantaloupes. Although this part of Southern Colorado produces a vast variety of crops, and we typically have over 300 days of sunshine, the growing season remains short (5 to 6 months) thanks to frosty evenings. Most days Pueblo is ten degrees warmer than other cities in Colorado, making it a pleasant place to live.

Looking back 150 years, Fort Pueblo was a significant trading post for pioneers in the American West. Settlers lived here along the Mexican border, growing food and raising livestock to barter with different Native American tribes. But in 1854 communication conflicts ended in a massacre, which left many dead and the fort burned. Yet, in 1870 the city of Pueblo was officially incorporated and became known nationally as a center for economic and social development. By the late 1890s Pueblo was growing to become the largest populated area in Colorado full of rich cultural diversity and immigrants from various origins. The three main cultural influences on our cuisine even today are Mexican, Italian, and Slovenian.

Pueblo was uniquely positioned as the technological and transportation hub for an expanding America. “Steel City” is our town’s nickname due to it being home of the Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) steel mill. In the early 1900s recreation and affordable housing opportunities stood out as community strengths that still remain true today. In 1903, the Rockefeller family and Jay Gould purchased the CF&I steel mill and invested a great deal of money in modernizing equipment; they also invested in building schools and hospitals in the area (http://pueblo.org/history). Sadly, this great legacy is often overshadowed by the dark day of 1914, known as The Ludlow Massacre -- the bloodiest labor strike in history when workers were met with corporate militia and National Guard forces killing 66 men, women and children. Not long after, Pueblo suffered another blow with the Great Flood of 1921 when a majority of the city was suddenly ten feet under water. The economy suffered drastically and continued to experience boom and bust cycles as the U.S. entered various wars over the decades to come. The mill remains a key icon of our identity as a place, as well as the vital farmlands. Even now in 2020, Pueblo represents the convergence of technologies from both the agricultural and manufacturing industries.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

6210

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

166000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

During Pueblo’s stakeholder conversations last year around building a Local Food Council we had a chance to identify these challenges. One root cause of people being generally disconnected from the food system is a lack of K-12 education around food literacy and a lack of job training or college programs offering farming and horticulture related fields or food innovation and entrepreneurship. The other restrictive social issue identified was food insecurity, which spanned all age groups and ethnicities. Non-profits serve the community by offering creative ways to get food into the hands of people in need; but there are still many citizens of Pueblo County suffering from hunger and malnutrition or diet-related illnesses. Many people have limited access to purchasing food near their homes, other than processed foods from a convenience store. A major grocery chain closed two stores claiming frequent theft put them out of business. Other more rural areas of the county have similar access concerns with no grocery store within miles. Meanwhile, public schools host food pantries to make sure kids and parents have enough to eat; welfare services in Pueblo County are used by people in poverty including elderly on fixed incomes. Several community and school gardens have had limited success yet increasing interest. People want to know where their food comes from, but often lack the skills to grow it themselves. CSU-Extension Office offers classes on food preservation, cooking and more, yet this does not fully connect cottage food industry skills with small business development. Another gap in Pueblo’s economy is shared-use commercial kitchens, co-packing plants or other food manufacturing infrastructure that could be shared by small businesses. We need more ways for food grown here in Pueblo County to stay in Pueblo and still generate ample profit.

Farmland that preserved families’ livelihoods for generations is now being sold off for various reasons. These influences include rising prices of water rights, degradation of soil quality and competing interests between food and the hemp industry. A few large family farms sell produce at farmers’ markets, but a majority of what they harvest is exported. For years Pueblo had an organic co-op with a CSA food box offered weekly during the harvest season, but this model has been discontinued. Only 5 percent of Pueblo County’s farmers sell directly to consumers (Portiz & Rees, 2019). A few restaurants specialize in offering local ingredients, and several businesses, even franchises, choose to capitalize on the branding of the Pueblo Chile and boast of using it on their menus. Overall there is only a nascent and shallow attempt to localize the supply chain. Thus, the economy and culture around agriculture does not support citizens having greater access to the abundant varieties of crops grown in our climate zone.

Portiz, J. & Rees, J. (2019). Pueblo Food System Executive Brief. Colorado State University Pueblo.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The P.E.A.C.E. Project (Pueblo Ecology and Arts Center for Empowerment) will be an agri-tourism site where people from all walks of life can learn about aquaponics, indoor farming, and regenerative agricultural practices. This business incubator will serve the needs of our community by providing vocational training on urban farming skills leading up to certifications. P.E.A.C.E. will demonstrate various sustainable technologies and provide coaching for people wanting to start up a business that will contribute to localizing the food system. Other sites across the U.S.A. are focused on either vertical farming (i.e. Vertical Harvest in Wyoming) or aquaponics (i.e. o2 Urban Farms in Ohio), but ours will showcase both styles of indoor farming technology.

FarmBox Foods is a Colorado start-up company that upcycles shipping containers into hydroponic farms; if paired with renewable energy, this model could provide a stable food supply via neighborhood CSAs, or this tool could be used to centralize the supply chain for a business and control the consistency of quality through automation. We have yet to see how the cannabis industry’s technology can enable year-round indoor food production, but both greenhouses and warehouses could be converted into food production with significant investment. As Pueblo commits to producing 100% renewable energy by 2035, this will help to balance the extreme energy requirements of LED lighting and ventilation.



High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Pueblo County has the potential to become a food production hub that could support the localization of the entire Southwest Region of the United States. If we continue to increase economic infrastructure for small businesses to start-up and scale-up, as well as invest in new agricultural technologies that maximize water and energy efficiency and increase yields and harvests per year – hundreds of jobs and thousands, even millions of pounds of fresh produce could be created here. With P.E.A.C.E. Project (urban farming business incubator) we will curate existing technologies as well as invent new indoor grow systems that will increase the number of species of edible crops that can be grown locally to support business supply chains and fresh access to consumers via grocery stores, restaurants, and direct sales models. We will also provide consulting and coaching services to help people get their ideas into actionable strategy and connect clients to valuable resources. Innovative small business models that combine growing with ways to retail the food or process it and then sell it locally will develop rapidly. Every neighborhood will have some sort of retail access to fresh food grown within five miles or fewer.

People will be empowered to grow their own fresh produce at home using indoor growing systems designed by Puebloans at the P.E.A.C.E. Project. Container farms will provide 2-3 jobs per unit, and can be strategically placed to supply businesses with fresh, local ingredients on demand. Gardens and greenhouses will become places where community comes together to work, learn, eat and celebrate life. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Perpetual Harvest supports projects that exhibit the possibility of year-round local food production in its various forms as a source of liberation for society and strength for the economy. The focus of Perpetual Harvest’s platform for change is sustainability education and small business management strategy. Our goal is to contribute to zero waste and zero hunger by inspiring people to think differently about how they can design food production systems to fit any context. We choose to promote urban farming because it has the power to solve some of the most pressing environmental issues our world is facing: soil and water pollution from agricultural pesticides, air pollution from transporting food hundreds, even thousands of miles and degradation of the land. Inarguably the nutritional value, flavor, and texture of freshly picked vegetables are superior to foods found in a grocery store chain where the focus is more on shelf-life than quality. That is why P.E.A.C.E. Project exists – to demonstrate the fact that we can change the way we eat and grow to produce leafy greens year-round, and eventually other crops, too.

With the right engineering set-up, a farm operator can plant and harvest equal amounts on a daily basis. If other types of crop rotations are preferred, then a unique harvesting schedule may be generated (i.e. weekly or bi-weekly). This process maximizes the freshness of the salad or herbs and minimizes food loss, especially during transport. The plants grown indoors tend to have consistently high-quality ascetics, flavor, smell and nutrition (due to being picked hours ago, rather than days). In the FarmBox Foods model we plan to showcase, 4,800 plant sites fit inside a refrigerated semi-truck trailer using hydroponics and LED lighting to replace soil and sun and automation to maintain crop consistency. Controlled-Environment Agriculture technology changes the agri-business paradigm, because it increases the number of harvests per year and the yields are measured in pounds per square foot, not per acre. Another benefit is indoor growing can offer produce in its “off-season” for a higher price for variable markets and a consistent local supply for restaurants or food manufacturing businesses. “Farm to Cafeteria” is another profitable strategy we are privy to see unfold as St. Mary Corwin hospital in Pueblo is one of the first to pilot a FarmBox in 2020.

In order to increase the value of and demand for local, fresh food, every child in Pueblo County should understand how much work it takes to get a plant from seed to harvest. Lettuce and herbs can be grown fairly easily, however Research and Development is moving towards new specialty crops being grown indoors, everything from mushrooms to chile peppers. There are benefits of getting our hands dirty, too, and really understanding the cycles of nature rather than mimicking them or manipulating them to meet the needs of a business model. That is why Perpetual Harvest supports school and community gardens, and proposes indoor growing be supplemental to rather than a replacement for soil-based food production. We teach and promote permaculture principles and regenerative farming, in addition to advancing climate-controlled growing methods.

As the agriculture and technology sectors continue to cross-pollinate, big data analysis will allow for a better informed design process for creating indoor micro-climates appropriate for specific crops’ needs. The ability to match supply and demand will become a matter of using computer software to reverse engineer the market’s needs to match the planning of indoor growing spaces (see skyfarms.io or agritecture.com). The FarmBox Foods model is superior to other existing vertical farming models for various reasons; these include reduced labor inputs and risks, increased water and energy efficiency, and the use of process automation without robotics.

At Perpetual Harvest, we believe farming needs to maintain a sense of humanity to it. We do not want to see a world where machines do all of the work like slaves and humans never touch the soil or food as it is being grown. In fact, gardening needs to be taken just as seriously as farming – the life skills associated with this activity not only add to self-sufficiency, but also to longevity and health. The proposed site for the FarmBox vertical container farm is at Pueblo Diversified Industries, a non-profit that provides job-training for adults with developmental disabilities. We plan to combine the container farm model with some uniquely designed aquaponics grow systems to show people closed-loop system design at its best. We will also demonstrate vermiculture by growing worms that can be fed back to the fish in the aquaponics systems. Our urban farming business incubator will provide job-trainings, educational programs and public tours (similar to The Plant in Chicago or Grow Haus in Denver).

Our goal is to create a coalition of people who can contribute to the greater vision of food sovereignty. Within Southern Colorado there are educational non-profits making heroic efforts to introduce change, and P.E.A.C.E. would offer a common ground for these allies to exchange ideas to build best practices collaboratively. For example, We are FARMily operates a small farm for youth just south of Pueblo and their education encompasses “food-making” and more. According to their co-executive director, “Creating a love of growing and preparing foods in schools is a major factor for increasing our future agricultural grower and producer workforce.” In Canon City, about 40 miles west of Pueblo, Green Thumb Initiative is demonstrating the restorative power of gardening, both indoors and outdoors, for building the community and local food economy. Closer to home we have adult education like the All Pueblo Grows group that meets monthly at the main library and established a community seed bank; also the Pueblo Urban Farming Network is a group that empowers people by sharing knowledge about growing practices and is building out pathways for fresh produce to be traded, donated or composted. The Pueblo Food Council is a new non-profit founded under our city Mayor’s Office. Work committees have been tasked with developing solutions to address both the lack of food literacy education and food insecurity. However, the only way to successfully do that is to keep a strategic and economic lens at the forefront. What is needed is more entrepreneurial infrastructure – cottage food makers need support scaling to manufacture and export their products. They need to know their options, that with a bit more capital investment up front they could own their own supply chain and grow their own ingredients.

By showing how much food can be produced year-round in a small space with very little water and no sun – with no risk of weather variability, no need for migrant farm labor and reduced need for transport – P.E.A.C.E. will offer hope that agricultural technologies are rapidly changing to address climate change and other social factors influencing people’s and the planet’s well-being. Combining renewable energy with indoor growing facilities is key to ensuring this form of future farming does not cause undue harm. We also want to encourage the use of aquaponics at various scales, from desk-sized units in an office space or kitchen to back-yard style or garage-sized units to community-level commercial greenhouses. By designing and manufacturing our own unique grow systems in Pueblo County (including FarmBox Foods’ upcycled container model), we can become a vertical farming industry leader in the global scope.

There is a theme in Southern Colorado’s history of social justice regarding the corporate abuse of power. By merging gardening and urban farming and simplifying the process so that anyone can enjoy growing – we are giving back that power into the hands of people willing to work in order to eat. Harnessing the powers of technology and nature as we design new growing spaces and products to serve the local markets’ and residents’ needs will be a challenge, but more tools are becoming available as we innovate. The soup kitchen will eventually have its own hydroponic garden where homeless people are encouraged to harvest their own salads. We will have a parking garage where people pick up their head of vertically-farmed lettuce on the way out. Abandoned retail stores may be transformed into indoor farmers’ markets where people grow and make their food on site by night and sell it during the daytime.

Pueblo citizens will use their phone apps to track and share pictures and data about their personal successes with growing or cooking and preserving foods. There will be a healthy sense of competition, collaboration and support for local businesses in general. Pueblo’s diversity should come through in the flavor of the products it generates – the Pueblo Food Council is working on a branding campaign for any value-added products created in the County called “Genuine Pueblo”. P.E.A.C.E. will inspire entrepreneurs to shorten supply chains and vertically integrate their small businesses from the beginning by investing in indoor farming technology. We will influence greener lifestyle choices with innovative education, job-training and eco-friendly product development.

This grant from the Rockefeller Foundation could provide a way to introduce people to urban farming who normally might not have a chance to learn about or consider this career pathway. P.E.A.C.E. offers a K-16 educational model that empowers people of various ages and abilities to be involved in the food system. We will do this in conjunction with a small non-profit called The I Will Projects, which has an educational initiative called the Indoor Farming Innovation Zone (IFIZ). 

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Photo of Benjamin Fahrer
Team

Thank you for your vision! I am curious if you feel that Vertical farming and this style of higher tech farming limits the user by making them more dependent on high cost technologies and inputs that can break and need fixing? Rather than relying on natures systems that don't require much more than soil, water, seeds and intention? Always trying to unpack this one and understand it better. Thank you

Photo of Dr. Kelly Gehlhoff
Team

Hi Benjamin,
Thanks for the comment and questions. I do admit there are serious limitations in costs and materials with indoor farming. I prefer to see each neighborhood and region maximize their ecological efficiency in output of edible crops and supplement year round supply with indoor grows.

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