Waterfields (Profile)

Local hydroponics company Waterfields uses microgreens to build a better future

click to enlarge Chef Jose Salazar's oyster slider is topped with Waterfields' micro daikon radish.
Chef Jose Salazar's oyster slider is topped with Waterfields' micro daikon radish.

The Mercer eloquently tops its scallops with micro red-veined sorrel. Salazar places micro daikon radish on its oyster slider to give it a bit of a kick. And chances are if you’ve recently dined at Boca, Maribelle’s or Ruth’s Parkside Café, you were also presented with a meal topped with intricate-looking microgreens that came from Lower Price Hill’s Waterfields, a hydroponic farm located in a former warehouse that not only aims to grow specialty produce for local restaurants and grocers year-round, but also to create jobs with livable wages in hard-hit urban neighborhoods.

In 2010, Waterfields co-founder and Chief Growing Officer Dan Divelbiss partnered with Sam Dunlap, director of operations, on a small-scale aquaponics project, using fish and fish waste to fertilize plants in water. With backgrounds in environmental engineering and permaculture, as well as time spent in community development — Divelbiss in Guatemala and Dunlap as the school garden coordinator at Avondale’s Civic Garden Center — the duo thought they could combine their passion for unconventional farming and impacting food deserts to make a change. With help from Dr. Victor Garcia, they transitioned from their garage aquaponics project into a warehouse and established Waterfields in 2013. 

Garcia, a Cincinnati Children’s Hospital pediatric surgeon, is the co-founder of CoreChange, a Cincinnati-based multifaceted initiative with the goal of providing systemic solutions for urban poverty and its effects. Waterfields falls under that umbrella, following CoreChange’s inspiration by intentionally re-inhabiting the urban core — in this case, Lower Price Hill — and providing sustainable jobs for those who have had a dearth of access to living wages.

“We describe ourselves as an urban agriculture development company with a social mission,” Dunlap says. “A big part of Waterfields — what we all coalesced around — was the idea of creating jobs in the urban core so folks that live in challenged communities are able to access employment in agriculture.”

Although job growth has been slow, Waterfields recently announced that it will expand into two new locations, hoping to add 100 jobs in the next five years. Waterfields is expanding its stake in Lower Price Hill, renovating a warehouse on State Avenue with the help of Price Hill Will and the city of Cincinnati’s Neighborhood Business District Improvement Program. It has also leased a property in the West End with options for additional expansion.

Another important aspect Waterfields’ social agriculture project involves sustainability. Statistics from the Pew Research Center show that between now and 2050 the world’s population will increase by 3 billion, which means there will be more mouths to feed and less land on which to grow food. Microgreens are immature vegetable greens that take anywhere from eight to 40 days to grow and cultivate. They’re decorative but they also have complex flavor profiles, and researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture found they had considerably higher levels of vitamins than their mature counterparts. 

Waterfields grows about 30 varietals of greens, such as pea tendrils, shiso and red cumin, inside their hydroponic house called “the bubble,” which takes up only 1/10th of an acre of square footage. To compare, an average American farm is 434 acres, and a small family farm is about 231 acres. Using hydroponics, Waterfields can produce more food in a smaller space without taking up land.

“There aren’t acres of cheap land in the city, so we’re specifically looking for production techniques that are appropriate for the urban context,” Divelbiss says. 

Low costs, the ability to grow crops year-round, less environmental damage and providing food and jobs to hardscrabble communities are some of the appeals of “vertical farming,” as it’s called. In the bubble, non-GMO seeds are placed on a polyester substrate and grown in a warm environment under LED lights with an automated watering system (hydroponics doesn’t require soil). Radishes grow the fastest and are ready to harvest in a week, while the red-veined sorrel takes weeks longer. The live greens are then sent out uncut, which keeps them fresh up to three weeks after leaving cooler storage at Waterfields, unlike cut greens, which wither and die after three days and cost much more to transport out of state. 

Currently, Waterfields supplies greens to at least 90 different restaurants in the area, and you can purchase the greens at Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Jungle Jim’s in Fairfield, Clifton Natural Foods and Madison’s at Findlay Market. The goal is to expand into more than 100 regional markets. 

“I feel like, in some ways, we’re recognizing the value of regionalized food systems,” Divelbiss says. “And I feel like that’s a direction we need go in.”

For more information on WATERFIELDS, visit waterfieldsllc.com.

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