Green machine

Fork Farms continues to grow in its commitment to social change

Posted on Mar 30, 2020 :: Cover Story
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Sometimes inspiration strikes so strongly, its pull becomes irresistible. Consider Alex Tyink. Soon after the founder of Fork Farms first encountered a rooftop farm, he became so captivated with the concept that he headed to the nearest Home Depot, procured a stack of two-by-fours and other materials, ambled into a sweltering New York City subway car and hauled the whole unwieldy affair to his apartment to begin work.

The first prototype Tyink created that summer of 2010 was at once humble and marvelous. He constructed the nascent design using wood cut with a hand saw, garbage bags for waterproofing, and sheet plastic he cut with a knife, heated with a heat gun and hand-molded using wooden dowels he’d whittled into shape. That early creation whispered of what the Flex Farm eventually would become.

Tyink’s new fixation couldn’t have been a bigger departure for him. An entirely different passion, opera singing, and a performance contract first brought the Appleton native to NYC. A fateful encounter would soon change his course.

At an art gallery one day, Tyink met a sculptor — an aging hippie in his 50s or 60s — who was also running a rooftop farm. Most of what the man grew, he donated to food pantries and other organizations. The concept struck Tyink as a cool social model, and he began to volunteer with the man.

Unlike in Tyink’s hometown, poverty and homelessness exist in plain sight in New York.

“I grew up in Appleton, and there’s poverty here, but it’s really hidden. It’s not until you really dig in and you work in the space that you really understand it because it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind for most people,” Tyink says. “For me, that was a real wake-up call at that time in my life.”

That awareness dawned into another one for Tyink when the sculptor told him he could bring home anything he grew. That bag of mixed greens he’d cultivated proved life changing for Tyink, who was still in college mode and subsisting on a diet that included a lot of pizza and other junk food.

As Tyink, an Appleton West High School alumni and graduate of Northwestern University, began to eat healthier, he noticed he also felt better. The experience uncovered some mental health issues he hadn’t realized he’d been battling and helped him through a tough time in a positive way.

“I didn’t realize what it was doing to me mentally and physically, but it was profound, I later realized. You are what you eat is a real thing,” he says.

Tyink’s personal experience proved so galvanizing, he wanted to share it with others. He obtained United Way funding in New York, and he and a group of friends set about building rooftop and indoor gardens for schools and food pantries.

Over the next couple of years, Tyink and his team built about 12 units using pallet racks and technology that was state of the art at the time. The programs he worked with, however, kept the systems at that scale and were unwilling to take them to the next level.

When Tyink asked the different leaders about their reticence, they cited cost, saying they couldn’t afford $4 to $8 per pound just to grow the food. Food pantries operating on tight budgets can feed more people with 80-cent boxes of macaroni and cheese, he says. “That’s the world we live in. We can’t afford $4 per pound for lettuce.”

As Tyink began to research more, he learned many indoor farms that had started in the past 20 years failed to stay in business. Using traditional technology requires growers to demand a niche price point that a limited number of people are willing to pay, he says.

In indoor agriculture, the two top cost drivers are labor and energy. Tyink turned his focus to energy first. He wanted to find a way to grow a head of lettuce with around half the amount of energy typically required.

Reaching his goal took five years and a lot of tinkering in the form of around 30 prototypes he built first in his New York apartment and later in his parents’ basement in the Fox Cities. Tyink was awarded his first patent in 2014 for a concept using reflective surfaces and a central light source. In doing so, he could drop the wattage of the bulb by 40 percent and get the same outcome. The yield didn’t increase, but the cost of growing dropped.

“It was a really simple idea, but I was the one who had it. It’s not rocket science, but it works,” he says.

Putting down roots

After returning to the Fox Cities in 2012, Tyink was on the verge of moving to Madison and starting a small indoor farm. The same day he was planning to put an offer on a piece of property in Madison, he was offered a job at Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin running its community gardens program.

The twist of fate would alter his course and prove serendipitous. The role gave Tyink experience while also allowing him to continue working on his indoor farming project.

Part of what drew Tyink to Goodwill  was the opportunity to learn from the roster of former executives who worked for the organization — people who “wanted to do good because they’ve already done well” as former Goodwill NCW CEO Bob Pedersen put it.

Tyink also met influential leaders on Goodwill NCW’s board, including Bassett Mechanical CEO Kim Bassett. She took an interest in Tyink’s project and committed to helping him build his first stainless steel prototype to see if it could be mass produced. She also helped field test his concept.

Eventually, Tyink was able to make lettuce for about $1 a pound. Commercially, that would cost between $1 and $2, factoring in additional costs such as delivery and packaging. A micro farming approach would largely eliminate those extra costs and help take Tyink’s endeavor out of a niche space where growers would need to charge more. That proved to be a core differentiator, he says.

In 2015, Tyink met John Brogan, the CEO of the Bank of Kaukauna and a former patent litigator who would go on to become the co-founder of Fork Farms. Brogan helped Tyink button up his intellectual property and ensure it was protected. Tyink says he had originally wanted to keep it open source, but Brogan pushed to protect it to ensure the technology was used in a positive way.

“If you’re going to set a big goal, which we have done, then you have to be willing to fight through a lot of issues. It was clear Alex was the kind of person who was going to keep fighting,” Brogan says of choosing to partner with Tyink.

As he was building his business, Tyink also turned to his father, Steve Tyink, who worked as an executive for Miron Construction Co. Inc. at the time and now works in partnership development for Fork Farms.

Tyink stayed with Goodwill through 2016 and then went on to serve as director of programs and innovation at Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin. Throughout his time there, he continued to develop Fork Farms. He left Feeding America in April 2018 to devote his full attention to Fork Farms.

In 2016, Fork Farms became an operating entity when Tyink raised money from a small family and friends round of funding to construct the first mold-to-build system out of plastic and to assess scalability.

In 2017, the company settled into its first home in Menasha, launched its second-generation Flex Farm made of recyclable plastic and installed 30 systems. Tyink also completed the gBETA startup accelerator program. The following year, Fork Farms raised a capital seed round of $750,000, completed 95 more installations, won an Insight Innovation Award in the Planet category and moved to its Appleton location.

While chance led Tyink to settle in the Fox Cities instead of moving to Madison, the decision turned out well for him. At the time, he didn’t fully appreciate the bounty of the region’s supply chain. Tyink and his board set out with the vision of making Fork Farms a tech company, not just a hydroponic company. Thus, they chose to outsource every task outside of Fork Farms’ core competencies.

The company partnered with Hortonville-based Gardan to serve as its operations arm. The manufacturer manages Fork Farms’ inventory, supply chain, assembly and shipping. The only parts of the Flex Farm system that don’t come from Wisconsin are the pump and LED lights. The rest come from about a 100-mile radius of its Appleton headquarters.

“When you really run the numbers, I don’t think it’s actually that much more cost effective to go overseas. We’re really blessed in Wisconsin to have all those resources,” Tyink says.

A growing trend

Fork Farms’ reach continues to grow. In 2019, it launched its third-generation Flex Farm and opened its global shipping capability. Last October, the company received a Wisconsin Innovation Award for product design. On the financial side, the company has seen 170 percent year-over-year topline revenue growth.

In talking to Tyink, however, it quickly becomes clear that accolades and financial performance aren’t what move him. Yes, he wants to see Fork Farms make money and grow, but if you really want to see Tyink’s face light up, talk to him about the impact of his work on everyone from kids to those living in poverty and how the access to healthy food can improve lives.

That dedication to others is what drew Mike Weller, CEO of Mike Weller & Associates, to become a Fork Farms investor and board member. All Fork Farms investors have agreed to the company’s less financially aggressive and more socially minded aims. Weller says Tyink focuses on helping and elevating others.

“Those, in my mind, are some attributes I think can go far in this marketplace and in life,” he says.

Tyink credits his success to his co-founders, among whom he counts his dad, his staff and his 29 shareholders. “There’s so many people who have gone above and beyond the normal call of duty to make this happen just because they believe,” he says.

That support has helped Fork Farms spread its impact far and wide. About three and a half years ago, Menasha Joint School    District, where around 57 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals, became the first of many districts to implement the Flex Farm systems. Today, the basement of Menasha’s Butte des Morts Elementary School houses 12 units, which staff members for food service provider Chartwells maintain.

“They set a model that other districts are following all over the country. That’s pretty cool — little old Menasha, Wisconsin,” Tyink says.

Sue Malesa, director of dining services for Chartwells in Menasha, says the district uses the systems as both a food production and teaching tool. Concerns about food safety and recalls played a part in the district wanting to look at other sources for greens, she says.

The team reaps around 50 to 60 pounds of greens each time it harvests three pods, and the district primarily serves the lettuce it grows at Butte des Morts and Menasha High School. While it’s difficult to scientifically track whether the fresh offerings are changing kids’ preferences, the anecdotal evidence shows they are. Malesa says the kids notice when the school needs to sub in lettuce from other vendors.

“We usually hear about that. That’s the telling part. They’re like, ‘Where’s the good lettuce?’” she says.

Jason Stellmacher, a science teacher at Appleton Central High School, has used the grow system as a food-producing and teaching tool in the school for the past two years. He also owns his own system, which he and his wife use to produce food for a community supported agriculture program they run.

In school, Stellmacher says he uses the system to teach his students about topics such as resource conservation and water scarcity in the face of climate change. “We’re looking for more sustainable options to feed 10 billion people by 2050,” he says.

Fork Farms provides free multidisciplinary curriculum for schools through First Educational Resources of Oshkosh. “I can’t count the number of applications this has taken on (in schools),” Tyink says.

Food pantries such as St. Joseph Food Program use the system to combat food insecurity. The nonprofit uses its eight units to provide freshly grown greens to its clients.

From health care to the commercial sector, organizations are embracing the Flex Farm. Marshfield Clinic bought 17 units and recently committed to purchasing 15 more. It uses them to grow and distribute fresh food to different populations, including senior citizens, with the aim of creating better health outcomes.

“These people are getting fresh food and they’ve never had it before, so they’re so excited. (The Marshfield Clinic team) said, ‘Steve, we’re giving every senior a bag of lettuce, and it’s like we’re giving them gold,’” says Steve Tyink.

On the commercial front, Fork Farms supplies grow systems to companies including Chartwells and Taher Food Service. The company also offers an industrial version of its product and has done one major installation, with others in the works.

The company plans to grow its presence and invest in research and development. “We would like to be the Google of agtech, and we’d love to transform the community by putting that right here,” Brogan says.

Along the way, Tyink says he hopes they can inspire other companies as well. “We want to try to represent what we think the future of business could be, not just our mission, but I feel like the United States in particular needs more people who think like we do and aren’t so focused on shareholder return and are focused on creating value in society.”

A new leaf

Fork Farms offers two versions of its Flex Farm. Its Flex Farm 144 stands 4 feet tall, holds 144 plants and can grow more than 150 pounds of leafy greens per year, while its Flex Farm 288 holds 288 plants, stands 6 feet tall and can produce more than 300 pounds of greens per year. The systems require about four hours per month of maintenance and cost about $17 per month in electricity to operate.

To help make its systems affordable and accessible to as many organizations as possible, Fork Farms ships its units for free. It also helps connect nonprofits to funding opportunities and offers a philanthropy tool kit.

Fork Farms

Headquarters: Appleton

President: Alex Tyink

Year founded: 2012

Number of employees: 6

What it does: An agriculture technology company that develops and designs fully self-contained, portable hydroponic growing systems.

forkfarms.com