This article appears in the September 2018 issue of 400 Life magazine.
It’s been nearly four months since Fill Ministries and Meals By Grace cut the ribbon on their first aquaponics greenhouse and according to co-founders, Suellen and Stephen Daniels, the operation is growing like a weed and producing fruits left and right.
So far, the Fill Ministries 6-acre farm in east Forsyth still only consists of one 156- by 35-foot greenhouse and several open-air rows of berry bushes and terrestrial plants, but eventually, they plan on expanding the operation to as many as eight greenhouses on the property.
Each greenhouse at the farm contains three long rectangular bays of water, each only a few inches deep and filled with sheets of floating plastic foam in the water, covered with hundreds of holes into which a single plant is planted.
At capacity, Suellen Daniels said that each greenhouse has the ability to produce more than 100 pounds of vegetables every week, and can produce year-round regardless of the weather. Currently, volunteers harvest about 100 pounds of romaine and between 5 and 25 pounds of tomatoes each week.
Vegetables from the greenhouse go to the Meals by Grace Client Choice Pantry, and any overage is sold into the community to turn around and buy new products for the pantry.
Suellen Daniels said that while things have gone smoothly the last few months, they have had to adapt and change as problems like machinery breaking down and plants dying have cropped up.
One large obstacle he said they had to overcome with some of their clients at the food pantry was that many just don’t know what to do with greens, because they have never had access to them.
“It’s probably an outgrowth of not being accustomed to healthy eating,” Stephen Daniels said. “If you were to ask our families, ‘How many salads do you eat a week?’ They’ll say, ‘what’s a salad?’”
After seeing that many families were either not picking fresh greens or sometimes just throwing them out, Suellen Daniels said they began to work with families to make sure that they knew what healthy foods look like and how to cook them.
“Step two is coming back with education,” Suellen Daniels said. “Education plays into this in a big way, teaching those who have never had what something tastes like and getting the kids excited about it.”
And people do seem to be excited about the farm, Daniels said that almost every day of the week they have volunteers from large workgroups that come for the whole day to single individuals that come for an hour, all wanting to give back and see the farm.
“We have volunteers every day, we work seven days a week because so many people want to come and play at the farm,” she said. “And during the school, we have STEM group after STEM group here to learn about how the farm works. It’s great.”
As she spoke, one such volunteer, 18-year-old Nidesh Kumaresan, walked up the driveway and set to work with Stephen Daniels in the greenhouse.
Kumaresan said that for him the volunteering started as a way to recover from a speeding ticket.
“I was trying to find places near my house, and [my] mom found it online with the Meals by Grace website,” he said. “And I’ve enjoyed it, there’s so much to do here ... I’ve learned about how the crops here work, harvesting, the whole process behind shipping out certain crops.”
With so much interest from the community and readily available help, the Daniels said that the next step for the farm is expanding towards being self-sustaining as a non-profit. She said that the goal of becoming self-sustaining would mean expanding the grow operation to four greenhouses.
“We want to be self-sustaining because as a part of our vision model, we want to lead by example. We want to show our families that being self-sustaining is a great place to be,” she said. “And we want them to get there, but we want to model that for them.”
Each of the greenhouses costs roughly $250,000 to build and outfit. They raise those funds from events, donations and constantly applying for grants.
Suellen Daniels said they are halfway done raising the funds for greenhouse number two, which will be built right next door to the first. She said that eventually they will be formed into one giant “double hump” greenhouse.
They say that the second greenhouse is planned to be built within the next six months, putting them on track to be self-sustaining within the next three years.
After expanding the farm, she said that they also plan on consolidating the different aspects of Fill Ministries, pulling its different parts in from the corners of the county to a central location at the farm.
“We are still very much scattered,” she said, explaining that parts of their operations are spread across north and south Forsyth, keeping their trucks, volunteers and product traveling on a daily basis.
“We are a logistical nightmare all week long, with our truck and supplies and volunteers going in all different directions,” she said. “It will be just so much more efficient and effective for us to serve families when we are all in the same place.”
Beyond the farm expansions, the Daniels said that they have several other projects in the hopper that they hope with increased community engagement.
“We are always looking for opportunities to integrate the community,” she said. “Whether it’s the community that’s been marginalized, that may not have all the skills they need or families that may have sunsetted skills.”
In addition to opportunities for community groups, Stephen Daniels said they are still pushing their produce as a quality, safe product to local restaurant owners. Due to how their products are grown, none are subject to soil borne illnesses like listeria and E.coli, which other farms might fear.
“They can buy from us 365 days a year without any concerns about those typical things that you could get from traditional farms,” Suellen Daniels said.
“And foundationally, the product is a superior product,” Stephen Daniels said. “It has a great taste ... and we have a supply that we can repeat every week, year round.”
But most importantly, for every bag of lettuce or tomatoes that is purchased in the community, Fill Ministries can turn it around and feed more people different things they can’t grow, like macaroni and cheese, cereal or eggs, they said.
“Every time a person or a business purchases our produce, they are allowing us to feed more hungry children,” Suellen Daniels said.
Interested buyers can find produce from Fill Ministries through The Cumming Harvest online market, cumming.locallygrown.net.