Rebecca Self, executive director of Food Chain. Photo by Tom Eblen
When her husband and his partners were planning West Sixth Brewing Co. last year, Rebecca Self realized the 90,000-square-foot former bakery they bought to house it — now known as The Bread Box — could help her achieve some entrepreneurial dreams.
She was then education director of Seedleaf, a Lexington non-profit organization that develops community gardens and teaches people in low-income neighborhoods about sustainable agriculture and nutritious food.
Self was passionate about Seedleaf’s mission, but she wanted to take it a few steps further. So she assembled a board of directors and staff to create a new non-profit, Food Chain. The goal is to demonstrate indoor food production and preparation in urban Lexington and teach sustainable agriculture skills to youth and adults.
“We’re trying to reimagine the local food economy by rethinking the urban spaces we have,” said Self, 33, a graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
By late fall, Food Chain will launch its first project: A huge, windowless room beside the brewery will become Kentucky’s first indoor aquaponics farm, where fish and plants grow together using the same water in a closed loop.
Here’s how it works: Waste grain from the brewery is fed to fish, mostly tilapia, which grow in tanks. Water with the fish’s waste flows through long troughs, where greens, herbs and other food plants grow in a medium under artificial light by absorbing nutrients in that waste and, in the process, cleaning the water.
Once the system is up and running, Food Chain will harvest 240 plants each week and 125 pounds of fish per month, Self said. The system also will produce 120 pounds a year of freshwater prawns, which grow in the troughs where plants are raised.
Renowned chef and restaurant entrepreneur Ouita Michel of Midway, who is on Food Chain’s board, plans to open a fish-and-chips restaurant in the building to serve the tilapia in West Sixth Brewery’s taproom. The fish and greens’ trip from tank to kitchen to plate will be only a few yards, Self said.
Excess greens will be sold to other local restaurants.”We don’t want to go toe-to-toe with in-field farmers, so we’ll grow lettuces and mixed greens primarily off-cycle,” she said. “What we think is probably going to be one of our bigger products are what’s called microgreens, which are the stage before baby greens.”
Those immature plants are packed with nutrition and sell for high prices; restaurants want them, but they are hard for soil-based farmers to grow.
Students from the University of Kentucky’s sustainable agriculture program helped build a small demonstration aquaponics system, where greens, herbs and large-mouth bass are being raised. The full-scale system will be built during the next few months with help from Kentucky State University aquaculture students.
Food Chain has raised more than $60,000 of the $113,000 cost of renovating the space and buying and installing equipment, Self said. That money came mostly from local donations. The organization now is applying for agriculture development grants and planning fund-raisers.
Food Chain expects the sale of greens and fish to cover most operating costs, but the group will continue seeking grants and donations to fund educational programs. Once the aquaponics farm is up and running, Self plans to begin using more brewery waste to grow mushrooms in the basement for sale.
Then Food Chain will put hoop houses on the building’s roof to grow vegetables and create a vermaculture demonstration, where worms break down organic waste into fertilizer.
Food Chain’s third phase will be construction of a certified commercial kitchen in the building. It will be used to teach people how to prepare and preserve the fresh food they grow. The kitchen also will be available for use by entrepreneurs who want to process their locally grown food into jams, pickles, sauces, pesto and other products for sale.
Food Chain will create a few jobs itself, but its main goal is to provide training in sustainable agriculture techniques that will allow people to create their own jobs and businesses, and strengthen Central Kentucky’s local food economy.
“What we’re trying to do is educate and market,” Self said. “We think we’re going to help impact a lot of jobs regionally as people come here to learn and then go off and start doing this on their own.”