Planting roots: How an urban farm at Electric Works plans to address Fort Wayne's health disparities

The vision for Electric Works is to be the heart of innovation, collaboration, programming, and cultural change in Northeast Indiana. And it can be said that one of its forthcoming tenants is "rooted" in those same values. 

Last month, Atlanta-based Sweetwater Urban Farms announced plans to have a greenhouse at the future redeveloped campus. Sweetwater (no association with the local family of Chuck Surack companies), employs urban landscape and methods to produce and supply produce. Their current greenhouse is also connected via Internet of Things (IoT) applications. 

Sweetwater Urban Farms signed on to be a tenant at the Electric Works campus. 

According to Co-Founder Clint Crowe—who originally hails from Northeast Indiana—the business’s name is a nod to their process.

“It works well with the concept of what we're doing here because we grow food in vertical towers,” he explains. “We use a nutrient mix, which contains water. And so in a way, we're using sweet water to grow our plants.”

Specifically, Sweetwater leverages the power of aeroponic agriculture, an environmentally friendly approach to food production that nurtures plants with a nutrient-laden mist. Crowe says they chose this method because it had a proven track record of yielding results. The nuances of the technology are what distinguish it from other approaches. 

“With aeroponics, the roots are suspended in air and are on a cycle,” he explains. “The pump turns on at the bottom of the tank, and the tower pumps the water to the top. Then it trickles down and hydrates the roots with water.”

Crops like tomatoes and cucumbers can easily be grown in this tower system, which has caught on at indoor farms across the world. In fact, the indoor farming technology market was valued at $23.75 billion in 2016 and is projected to surpass $40 billion by 2022, according to a report by MarketsandMarkets.

Locally, Windrose Urban Farm is already on this trend, combining social enterprise with growing mushrooms.

As for Sweetwater, just as important as their systems is their "why" for existing, Crowe says.

"My wife Sheree and I turned 55 in 2017, and we decided that it was time to make a change to move toward what we really wanted to do with our lives," he explains. "It was something we saw would make an impact that was tangible.”

Sweetwater Urban Farms is part of a growing movement for fresh, locally produced food

As a result, the couple quit their day jobs and pursued Sweetwater full-time together. They set out to build up the greenhouse and got their hands dirty, literally and figuratively. In the process, they saw an opportunity to bring their model to other cities, using what Crowe refers to as a “social determinants” framework to increase access to healthy and fresh food in vulnerable communities. 

Social determinants are factors that contribute to a patient's health, such as where you live, your environment, income, access to jobs, access to healthy food, access to education, medical and family history, and stress levels. As Crowe explains, these variables and how they intersect have been the subject of research within the healthcare space in recent years. 

Crowe's vision was aligned with Electric Works’ philosophy. To that end, Sweetwater will offer retail sales of its produce and make it available for delivery to local restaurants, hotels, healthcare institutions, and schools. Crowe says they plan to invite community members into the fold and help them develop a deeper connection to the food system. 

Although details are still being finalized, strategic and long-term partnerships will drive those results–especially when it comes to health disparities. 

“I think there's some perspective that says, if we build a farm and we grow food, suddenly this neighborhood will get healthier, and it doesn't always work that way,” Crowe explains. “That's why we plan to work with health organizations, churches, and other social groups to determine what food is distributed and then track and manage the outcomes.”

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.