Farmers of the future
“We’re as traditional a Salvation Army as you can get,” Major Kevin Jackson says, standing amid a high–tech hydroponics farm not far from the Akron (Citadel), Ohio, Corps.
During the summer, representatives from NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) visited the farm to help Akron’s urban, at–risk kids learn robotics, build food computers, and run experiments that someday may help grow food on Mars. New projects involving aquaponics and coral reefs will begin soon.
Jackson, who holds several master’s degrees, including one with an emphasis on early church history, explained that the indoor farm was actually inspired by Founder William Booth’s “In Darkest England scheme.”
Booth’s scheme, after the publishing of In Darkest England and the Way Out in 1890, involved putting some of England’s urban poor on farms.
“We’ve taken the Darkest England scheme and we’ve just put it in the 21st century,” Jackson says. “That was our blueprint. That’s all we’ve done. William Booth and his officers were brilliant people. The problem is, they were 100 years ahead of their time.
“We asked, ‘If we were going to take the urban poor and put them on a farm today, what would that look like?’ That’s what we have here. We wouldn’t be out in a field behind a mule and a plow. It’s in a high–tech, indoor growing facility, using all of the technology in the world to grow food 10 times faster and healthier.”
The magic happens in a former 18,000–square–foot furniture store on Romig Road, affectionately dubbed “Fort Romig.” When The Salvation Army originally opened in Akron, it did so in this part of town. The corps included a farm.
Marian Calvin, director of development for The Salvation Army in Akron, said, “Fresh Face Farms” was chosen as the name. Its mission statement reads:
“A fresh new way to farm through technology, yielding the freshest products available.
Grown by fresh young faces.
For a fresh face on the war on poverty.”
Among the products grown in the indoor farm are leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach; herbs, such as basil; tomatoes; cucumbers; and peppers. Some of the food is sold to local restaurants and grocery stores.
“The products we deliver are less than 24 hours old—even in the winter,” Calvin said.
The tomato plants recently reached their maximum of 15 feet, Jackson said. The seed stock dates back to 1830.
“This is what they looked like almost 200 years ago,” Jackson says. “We’re taking this heirloom seed and we’re using 21st century technology to grow it. The kids do pretty much every aspect of it.”
The entire system, designed by Ohio State University, is operated by a computer, which provides the plants with the perfect nutrient and pH (chemical) levels and water temperature.
“We’re constantly monitoring everything, 24 hours a day,” Jackson said.
When one of the water hoses accidentally dislodged from a growing tray during a recent tour, Jackson reinserted it, commenting, “That’s about as big of a disaster as we have.”
The farm operates with a surprisingly low amount of water.
“We recycle it,” Jackson said. “We grow everything in here with 150 gallons a month.”
Jackson said a head of lettuce requires 40 gallons of water per month to grow outside, but a mere 14 ounces is needed per month in the indoor farm.
“This is really where it happens,” Jackson said. “This is where kids get excited about the world they’re going to live in and how they’re going to be a part of that.
“When they grow up, they’re actually going to be leaders and change–makers in their community. This is also about Akron. We don’t want them to go off to college and never come back.”
Jackson has a plan to make sure the kids stay local. Eventually, he expects the farm to annually grow $2 million worth of food, of which $1 million will go back to the community through the corps food program. The other $1 million will fund operations, as well as a college scholarship program for Akron children.
Staying on mission
“Our goal is to take [kids] from 18 months to 18 years and then turn them over to the University of Akron,” Jackson says.
“Another upside is we’re actually getting good, clean, healthy food into households of at–risk kids. That’s a huge step. Kids are used to having potato chips, candy bars, and sugary drinks.”
Once the kids get to the University of Akron, Jackson said, “We’ll be waiting on them.” The corps has a full–time office on campus for social services. A Bible study will begin this fall.
“We’re trying to do the mission of The Salvation Army well in a 21st century context,” Jackson said. “We could have a little garden out behind the corps and there would be nothing wrong with that, but this indoor farm is the absolute cutting edge of technology. This is how these kids are going to eat in the future. Traditional farms are becoming fewer, so this is how we’re going to feed the world.
“We could hand them a basketball and a dodge ball and let them run around in the gym, but if that’s where it stops, I have to question if we’re doing the best we can. Are we really ‘Doing the Most Good’ then?”
The farm is operated and maintained by kids who attend Billy Booth’s Arts and Science Factory, an after–school academy named in honor of William Booth.
However, the kids attending the 10 weeks of summer day camps this year got some extra help from NASA and MIT.
Jackson said the young charges received an 87–page manual of variables from the NASA Glenn Research Center to conduct experiments on growing food on the surface of Mars.
MIT helped the kids use robotics to build food computers designed by the prestigious university.
“Those are two pretty high–end partners,” Jackson says. “You usually don’t hear The Salvation Army, MIT, and NASA all in the same sentence.
“Whenever we can bring in partners or have relationships or find funding for those kind of projects that really fit into this new kind of programming, we’re going to do it.”
Jackson has sought funding from donors, foundations, and the government. A retired engineer overheard Jackson talking about the farm in a local restaurant and gave him a $2,500 check.
“It’s a very giving community and people are excited about this and the ministry of The Salvation Army,” he said. “We want to be a change–agent in the community.”
Jesus ‘crops up’
Jackson recently secured funding for aquaponics, which should take the project to another level and allow for the addition of raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries.
Jackson said nutrients from a fish tank are pumped into a worm farm to form a unique symbiotic relationship. The worm waste is used to fertilize the lettuce trays in the farm. The roots of the lettuce then filter the water that keep the fish alive.
“The fish will keep the worms alive, the worms keep the lettuce alive, and the lettuce keep the fish alive,” Jackson said. “We want the kids to experience multiple ways of growing.”
Jackson said the natural interconnectedness of life is a perfect illustration to highlight the beauty of God’s creation to young children.
“The spiritual angle and Jesus are clearly in what we do,” Jackson said. “Sometimes it’s easy to look past [that angle] when you see the computer–run farm, the hydroponics, the aquaponics, and the missions to Mars. But, embedded in all that stuff is what we truly believe, as far as our faith is concerned.”
Saving the world
Stewardship is a major emphasis of the lessons, Jackson said, and it begins early when children tend a small apple orchard at the corps.
“Initially, we tie in how there’s a loving God who takes care of us and guides us and has given us this wonderful place to live called Earth,” Jackson said. “Our responsibility is to take care of it and each other.”
“There’s a strong sense that God gave each of us a brain and He expects us to use it—we do push that envelope. As far as being good farmers and engineers of the future, we’re just using the brains God gave us.”
One way the kids will focus on caring for the world is by helping the planet’s dying coral reefs.
“Our urban kids in Akron are going to literally raise and farm coral in sea water tanks,” Jackson said. “It’s called micro–fragmenting. We’ll take little granules of coral, plant them, and raise them to be about the size of your fingertip. Then, they will be harvested and taken to reefs around the world and transplanted to rebuild the coral.
“So at–risk kids from Akron are going to help save the world’s oceans. That will be the most highly complex, challenging thing that we do in this building. We think it’s important that they realize they can do something to make the world a better place.”
Breaking the cycle
Jackson and his staff are determined to bring a new level of education to Akron. Most at–risk kids enter kindergarten at the educational level of a 3–year–old, rather than of a 5–year–old child.
During the summer camp, the corps focused on adults reading to children to boost Akron’s low state reading scores. Meanwhile, preschoolers at the corps oversee small box gardens and a worm farm and learn computer coding on iPads.
“You can’t start early enough,” Jackson says. “We fully expect that when our kiddos get to be 18 and graduate from high school, they’re going to be rock stars.”
Jackson said the after–school crowd from Billy Booth’s Arts and Science Factory enjoys a snack, homework help, and recreation before attending a variety of theater and arts classes. The kids have already put on several major theater productions in association with Akron’s Rubber City Theater, which is also located at Fort Romig (see January/February 2018).
Many of the kids show up with a life goal of emulating NBA star LeBron James, who grew up in Akron. A year later, their life dreams often evolve; they also want to become doctors, concert musicians, farmers or scientists.
The world for Christ
“We offer up real tangible chances at success in life,” Jackson said. “Then we allow the kids the opportunity to find out what that is for them. Maybe it’s music, maybe it’s theater, maybe it’s farming, maybe it’s science. We start fostering that at a young age.
“We feel like it’s part of our responsibility, not just to keep them off the streets in a clean, safe place, but to make them good citizens. It’s great to give them a place to go so they don’t join a gang, but what then? We felt like we had to take it to the next level if we’re truly going to do the mission of The Salvation Army.
“We set the bar really high and we keep the mission our focus.”
Jackson, ever the historian, says many of The Salvation Army’s early songs feature lyrics about “changing the world” and he remains an enthusiastic believer.
“What we do is not easy, but I didn’t sign up for officership because I thought it was easy,” Jackson says. “I signed up because I wanted to change the world for God.
“We’re serious about transforming the lives of our kids. No more half–hearted attempts. We are not going to sit back on our hands anymore and lose another generation of kids in Akron. We are all–in on this. We’re going to change the world.”
by Robert Mitchell