The people behind The Farmory want Northeast Wisconsin to become an industry leader in freshwater aquaculture. They’re also on a mission to improve lives.
“The Farmory started in 2016 with the idea of transforming a dilapidated building into a vibrant indoor urban farm with a social mission,” says Executive Director Claire Thompson.
The building is a historic structure in the heart of Green Bay. Built in 1920, it housed the Allouez Mineral Springs bottling plant and later became the National Guard Armory. Vacated in the early 1960s, the building sat unused until The Farmory organizers came along.
The 20,000-square-foot Farmory is the first indoor urban farm in the area. It uses aquaponics and aquaculture — the process of raising fish and plants in the same ecosystem — to provide fresh fish and produce to the area throughout the year and to educate people about sustainability and self-sufficiency.
The Farmory also just launched Wisconsin’s first and only bio-secure yellow perch hatchery.
“We are so excited to get some eggs incubating,” Thompson says. “We plan to produce about a million yellow perch fingerlings (young, small perch) per year for farmers to buy, grow and sell to local customers.”
The Farmory’s goals extend beyond aquaculture. By growing healthy food, the organization nurtures growers and, ultimately, grows job skills. The Farmory’s organically produced food is already being sold to schools, restaurants and health care organizations. When fully operational, The Farmory plans to produce and distribute 173,000 pounds of mixed salad greens and 42,000 market-sized yellow perch per year. It decided to grow yellow perch because Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources research found that a dramatic decline in the number of yellow perch surviving their first year of life has led to a reduction in the number of perch in Lake Michigan.
“Aquaculture is a growing industry that supports wild-caught fish,” Thompson says. “We know the wild fishery in the Great Lakes — and globally — is stressed due to ecosystem challenges. The fish and greens we produce will be a reliable and consistent supply throughout the year.”
The Farmory aims to revive the lost art of growing our own food. “People are looking for new ways to connect with their food source,” Thompson says. “There’s increasing public interest in not only growing food but in finding new ways to support the local food economy.”
Through learning experiences with area schools, volunteer opportunities and workshops, The Farmory hopes to inspire people to grow food and consider careers in agriculture.
The Farmory’s location in a high-density residential neighborhood in Green Bay is by design. “Thirty percent of the residents in this area live in poverty,” Thompson says. “It’s considered a food desert where 33 percent of the population lives more than one mile from a large grocery store.”
Not only does the location provide food security to these residents, it also provides a place for them to develop important skills. The Farmory works with about 200 volunteers — many of whom live within walking distance — and helps them gain job skills, confidence and connection.
The initial spark for The Farmory came from Growing Power, an urban farm in Milwaukee. From there, a community-minded team came together to bring the idea to reality.
The Farmory is a partnership between the City of Green Bay, E-Hub’s Urban Hope Entrepreneur Center, Forward Service Corp., NeighborWorks Green Bay, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, St. Norbert College, the Volunteer Center of Brown County, Wello and the WiSys Foundation.
The community also has stepped up to support the organization. During the 2020 Give BIG Green Bay event, The Farmory raised $42,485 from 121 individual donors. While donations helped get The Farmory up and running, the plan is to be completely self-sufficient through the sales of fish and greens once the business gets to scale.
The hatchery business will be fully operational this spring, with development of educational displays and tours continuing through the summer. The first batch of fingerlings will be available for purchase in June.