Dale Speetjens spent a year helping to identify and map urban blight as part of Mobile’s Bloomberg Innovation Team. Now he and his wife, Angela, have a plan to spruce up an area of downtown in a decidedly innovative way.
The couple, who live in a downtown loft apartment, have found an interesting way to grow 20 acres’ worth of produce while maximizing the district’s limited space. The Auburn University graduates and founders of Shipshape Urban Farms will grow lettuce, leafy greens and herbs hydroponically in specially made shipping containers.
“We’re using repurposed shipping containers,” Dale said. “It lets us grow stuff that can’t normally grow in the area.”
The containers can also allow for an extended growing season and the method of farming will use less energy and water than traditional farming, Dale said. The energy savings comes from the use of only red and blue LED lights, which is the best spectrum to use for growing. The process also only uses 10 gallons of water, which is 90 percent less than traditional farming, he said. The method maximizes space as well, as the produce hangs vertically from the ceiling.
“We can grow the equivalent of a 20-acre farm,” he said. “It’s roughly two acres per container.”
The Speetjens are in the process of obtaining the proper permits for the farm, which will be located at 610 St. Michael St. An urban farm is allowed on the quarter-acre lot, according to the city’s zoning ordinance, Dale said.
He said they hope to have all the approvals in a couple of weeks, with a groundbreaking on the site tentatively planned for October.
In addition to the containers, in which lettuce and other leafy greens will be cultivated, the farm will include a living wall, or vertical substrate, for growing herbs. Traditional raised beds and a tomato pavilion will also be part of the plan, Dale said.
Angela Speetjens studied hydroponics while at Auburn and earned a degree in horticulture with a focus on fruit and vegetable production. As a research project, she said she grew different things hydroponically in greenhouses.
“It sparked my interest in hydroponics,” Angela said.
Dale, a U.S. Army veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental design and master’s degrees in both landscape architecture and urban planning. So, while Angela worked out the technical aspects of the farm, Dale worked on the more creative aspects.
“A landscape architect and a horticulturalist are kind of the perfect couple,” he said.
The Speetjens hope to sell their produce to local grocery stores and restaurants in the future. They have also created a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, for the farm. A CSA allows customers to purchase produce in advance to help with overhead costs before farming operations begin. Shipshape has three levels in its CSA, according to its website at shipshapeurabanfarms.com.
The three levels, which start at $500 per year, provide a basket or box of produce per week for an entire year. The program allows customers to pick some of their own produce from the raised beds and also provides lettuce, leafy greens and herbs in varying amounts.