Doylestown Fresh is a story of how a die-hard organic farmer devoted to permaculture and homesteading, with a desire to live off the grid, came to be the newest farmer in town, farming hydroponically (the process of growing plants in water) in a warehouse less than two miles from State and Main Street.
Dennis Riling, a Bucks County native, went into the Marine Corps in 2001, returning in 2005. He wound up, while earning a proper living at a “real job,” living and working on a farm in Pipersville. He ran roadside farm stands and believed he could do much more. He enrolled in Delaware Valley College and graduated with a degree in Horticulture and commercial crop production. Upon graduating, he began working as the Program Coordinator of the Organic Farming Certificate Program and Delaware Valley College and the Rodale Institute, initially open only to veterans and now open to everyone.
Throughout this time, Dennis spent a great deal of time researching vertical farming as an alterative approach. He worried about feeding the billions more people anticipated on our planet healthy, organic, sustainable food. He looked to the abandoned buildings in urban centers and thought he could set up a model for the future of farming, bringing healthy, clean food directly to the masses and providing jobs at the same time. He joined up with Tim Sulzer, a Del Val student in Environmental Studies planning to graduate in just three more weeks, and with funding and business guidance from local business incubator Novotorium, they founded Veg-E-Systems, a research and development, design and consulting company for organic hydroponic growing systems. Doylestown Fresh, which employs the systems they create, is the end result.
In a converted warehouse on Skyron Drive, Dennis and Tim are now growing leafy greens such as kale and Swiss chard, different varieties of lettuces and spring mix, arugula, parsley and cilantro. They also grow basil, and peppers and are experimenting with beets and microgreens. Plants are grown following all organic guidelines for growing but the company is not yet certified organic. Their produce is herbicide, pesticide, fungicide, and genetically modified free. They usean inorganic salt-based fertilizer with micronutrients for now, until they can build up a sufficient organic fertilizer base through their vermiculture (using red wiggler worms to turn organic food waste into fertilizer). Their plants are grown using coconut coir, a waste product from coconut husks. In many ways, say Dennis and Tim, their product is hyper-organic because they have control over everything that goes into the soil and water (they use a reverse osmosis system to purify their water, using the “waste” for other tasks such as clean-up). There is no acid rain to water the plants or unknowns in the soil.
So how do they answer questions about sustainability? It is true, says Dennis, that they use energy to grow their produce, but so do organic land farmers when they use diesel fuel to plow and harvest and electricity to pump water. At Doylestown Fresh they are constantly finding more efficient ways to operate and reduce their energy usage. It is true they are using a great deal of water. But unlike a soil farmer, that water is all used, captured, and recycled through some part of the process. The Veg-E-Systems used at Doylestown Fresh use 95% less water to produce comparable produce on a soil farm. Most importantly, say Dennis and Tim, the space being used is existing warehousing rather than deforestation, such as is happening in so many parts of the world to make space for land to raise food (often for cattle).
One of the biggest advantages of concentrated hydroponic farming is control and availability of produce all year long. The Doylestown Food Co-op is looking forward to a long and wonderful relationship with Doylestown Fresh. Speaking personally, I am most excited about their newest crop experiment – strawberries!!
Doylestown Fresh currently sells out of its warehouse with produce available for pickup Monday through Friday between 10 and 5. Contact them at www.doylestownfresh.com with questions about availability and to place an order.