Buffalo native Mike Zak and a crew of passionate individuals have big plans in the works for launching a worker-owned farming co-operative that will transform an abandoned factory building into a year-round source of organically grown fruit, vegetables, fish, beer, mushrooms, kombucha, and other food items. The name of their business is Gro-operative, and Zak and his team are well into the planning and development stages for what could become a major boost to Buffalo’s economy and the local food movement.
Gro-operative will produce two things our city certainly won’t turn down– more living wage jobs and more locally grown, organic food. These two fundamental elements are essential to creating healthier communities and sustainable economic growth. And what better way to start combating some of the city’s greater socioeconomic issues than by creating more sustainable job opportunities and expanding access to fresh food?
“The problems you see in Buffalo – low income families, crime, poor education – most people look at them and think that none of them are linked together, but they are. We’re never going to get out of these bad situations until there are jobs to be had,” Zak said. “We want to start with large scale production. We need jobs now, so we might as well produce something that everyone needs and wants – food.”
By using the worker-owned cooperative model, Gro-operative will have a horizontal structure where every employee is a stakeholder who has an equal voice in how the business is run. “There are many different facets that we’re attacking this concept from,” Zak said. “The biggest thing I’m interested in is workers’ rights and having jobs that pay enough to live on. What I want to do is create something that will bring jobs back to Buffalo and will create economy in that production in an eco-friendly way.”
Zak and the Gro-operative team are pioneers here in Buffalo, but they’ll be basing their business model on that of The Plant – an indoor vertical farm created in the former Peer Foods meat-processing plant in Chicago’s economically distressed Back of the Yards neighborhood. The idea is to weave the outputs of one food production process into the inputs of another, creating a closed-loop system that maximizes use of by-products that would otherwise be deemed waste. Materials that can’t be recycled into this web will be processed by an anaerobic digester, which will break down the food waste, capturing methane and converting it into heat and electricity to power the building.
For those who are new to the idea of an anaerobic digester, it’s basically a giant contained steel vessel that houses bacteria. All your composted veggies and other biodegradable waste are fed into this digester, where the microorganisms break down the material. The outputs include carbon that can be utilized by the plants, methane that can be diverted to a combined heat and power system, and nutrient-dense silage that can be used as fertilizer. Thus, waste that would otherwise be diverted into a landfill and contribute to landfill gas being released into the atmosphere will instead be utilized to produce renewable energy and more organic food.
“The benefit of this is that we can create our own power from waste, as well as create other things from waste,” Zak said. “You don’t need an endless supply of raw goods to produce. We can produce so much food so quickly with so little overhead, we’ll be able to hire quickly.”
Zak’s goal is to hire 100 people within the first five years, with long-term projections for creating over 200 jobs. When you consider the variety of foods being produced at Gro-operative, this number isn’t as lofty as it seems. The plan is to start with a brewery, an aquaponic system that will raise tilapia and simultaneously nourish several varieties of lettuces, herbs and strawberries. According to Zak, they’ll start with these crops which have proven successful in an aquaponic setting, then work their way up to growing a variety of fruits and veggies. Mushrooms will also be one of the pilot crops on site. Spent grain from the brewery will feed the fish, and the fish will produce nutrients and clean water for the plants. Additional waste by-products from all of these operations will go into the anaerobic digester to be converted into power.
The sky seems to be the limit as far as production goes. At its ideal production level, Gro-operative will provide beer created from hops grown on-site, fresh fish, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, kombucha, honey and mead from an apiary, and baked goods from an on-site bakery. They plan to provide larger CSA shares for families to buy their produce locally. Some day, Zak even envisions incorporating technology that can compress the methane into a 100 percent pure gas source that can be pumped to other facilities for fuel, or even creating a fuel station for metro buses, fuel trucks, etc.
“Our main goal is to have the indoor production on a scale where we can take large scale orders from anchor institutions and also smaller orders from restaurants,” Zak said. “We’ll start with bigger institutions like colleges and hospitals – places that are taking a large amount of food and aren’t going anywhere.”
The beer will be headed to local taverns and bars, and also sold by the growler and keg. They plan to produce a pale ale and porter to appeal to the craft beer lover, as well as cream ale that the average Joe will enjoy. They’re also slated to be Buffalo’s first producer of mead, adding a unique new component to the ever-evolving local craft beer and liquor scene.
“There’s tons of ways for this to be profitable, so if one market goes down hard quick, we’ll have multiple options,” Zak said. “All of these pieces are fluid, and will have to change as the economic circumstances change.”
One thing that doesn’t seem to be fluid is Zak’s commitment to launching a model for other worker-owned cooperatives to spring from. “It’s not like we’re the first on the co-op bandwagon, and I hope we’re not the last,” he says, pointing to co-ops like Evergreen in Cleveland and Mondragon in Spain as models to aspire to.
“For most cooperatives that are worker-owned, the people come first. In traditional businesses, regular workers are considered assets. When profit goes down, you cut your assets. We’ll figure out ways to make the product go forward, we’ll produce different products, and we’ll keep the people.”
“This co-operative needs to happen for many reasons,” he continued, “but mostly to show that concepts like these succeed where you can use democracy in every facet of life. If you have a stake in your job, you have a greater feeling about life, your purpose, and your security. You understand that money isn’t exactly what I need to retire on – maybe it’s the people around me and the community I build.”
The Gro-operative team is hard at work putting together a business plan (no easy feat for a complex, combined business model such as this one). They hope to have it wrapped up by March 2014, then dive into a crowd-sourcing campaign that will help them get the brewery and aquaponic systems up and running. Zak estimates it will take a year for the digester to be fully operational, so they anticipate the full-scale launch to take place by 2015. They’re also scouting out potential sites for Gro-operative to call home.
On Nov. 16, Gro-operative will host a small dance party fundraiser to kick things off. The event will take place at 7 p.m. at The Foundry, located at 298 Northampton. A suggested donation of $15 at the door will include live music, auctions, food, samples of Gro-operative’s flagship beers, and live demonstrations.
Keep an eye on the Gro-operative Facebook page for fundraiser and progress updates. To learn more about the members of the group and their big plans, visit the Gro-operative website. Also see Facebook event for the Gro-operative dance party and fundraiser.