Jesse Fisher (right) and Idea Foundry CEO Mike Matesic at the Dutch Boy Farm aeroponics greenhouse.

In the summer of 2015, Jesse Fisher of Dutch Boy Farm decided to install an aeroponics unit, a vertical system of growing crops without soil, in the driveway of his Springboro, PA home.

“I wanted to prove to myself I could do it before I invested a bunch of money in it,” says Fisher, a manufacturing professional who farms part-time.

Over the next year, Fisher built a greenhouse on his property and put four aeroponics units inside. Last March, he brought in his first lettuce harvest.

Now with help from the Pittsburgh innovation accelerator Idea Foundry, Fisher wants to use his system to provide the region with strawberries year- round.

Dutch Boy Farm received a grant from Idea Foundry’s Revolving Loan Fund, a pilot program designed to support innovation in food systems. Fisher was chosen for his interest in using new technology to ensure local food can be produced and accessed by area consumers.

“There’s a slew of benefits with having that ability to grow your own food in the area,” says Nicole Muise-Kielkucki, director of social enterprise initiatives for Idea Foundry. “One of the things we’re looking to do is support efforts to extend seasons on farms, whether that’s through greenhouses or other technologies. That’s key to making sure our local food system is more robust and resilient.”

The loans, which range from $10,000 to $100,000, would allow businesses to make the necessary adjustments to achieve growth. For Fisher, that means adding two more aeroponics units in his greenhouse and being able to commit to the business full-time. Last summer, his facility passed a USDA food safety certification that would enable him to sell to supermarkets.

The aeroponics system at Dutch Boy Farm. Image courtesy of Idea Foundry.
The aeroponics system at Dutch Boy Farm. Image courtesy of Idea Foundry.

Though Fisher started with lettuce, he decided to switch to strawberries because of the region’s extremely limited growing season.

“Strawberries are only grown about two or three weeks out of the year where the local stores like Giant Eagle can get them,” says Fisher. “I saw an opportunity to offset some of the product coming in from California, Mexico or Florida.”

Making strawberries available year-round would be possible with indoor aeroponics, where plants are embedded in rockwool and sit on the outside of a vertical column, exposing the roots to nutrient-rich water circulating on the inside. Fisher says aeroponics is a better alternative to water-based hydroponics systems, which are prone to algae growth and root rot.

Besides giving fruit lovers in the region the chance to have fresh berries during the winter months, extending the growing season for local farmers also benefits the environment. Whether it’s importing water for crops in warm climates or trucking products to stores across the country, growing and transporting produce puts a dent in precious resources and contributes to climate change.

Large-scale farming also requires the use of fertilizers and harmful pesticides that pose a threat to public health and damage ecosystems. Growing with an indoor aeroponics system significantly lowers the need for pesticides and leads to far fewer food safety risks, since soil and conventional fertilizer are eliminated from the equation.

In addition to helping make farms more sustainable, Muise-Kielkucki also believes the Revolving Loan Fund pilot could help generate more jobs in the region.

“One of our goals with this pilot is to help businesses create new jobs by hiring people that could help them expand their business operations,” she says. “We see there’s a huge opportunity for employment in the food and farming sector, and if you look at the restaurant and service industry, that food sector makes up a huge portion of our economy. There’s a lot of room for job creation there.”

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.