Hundred Acre wants to ‘breathe new life’ into Century City with its fresh greens

Century City. Credit: Google
Century City. Credit: Google

Last updated on November 19th, 2021 at 12:40 pm

Seedlings have begun sprouting in a Century City industrial building in Milwaukee.

Hundred Acre, an indoor farm located in the city’s 30th Street Industrial Corridor, is prepared to begin supplying customers next month with its fresh greens.

The farm, which is run by New York-based Planet to Plate Inc., is located in a 5,000-square-foot controlled environment within a 10,000-square-foot space, which also includes a warehouse and front-of-house events area. The industrial building at 3945 N. 31st St. is owned by an affiliate of Good City Brewing Company, which has offices and distribution operations in the same space.

The vision of the enterprise is to address food insecurity and build a more sustainable supply chain for food businesses, according to Planet to Plate Inc. founder Chris Corkery. The fresh greens are a means to a larger end, he said.

“We have a triple bottom line: We have a quality product that’s competitively priced. There’s an insurance policy with this because it’s down the block. And then the social impact. It’s hitting all three,” Corkery said.

Corkery envisions the Century City farm model being replicated across the city and eventually exported nationally.

Since announcing its pilot project in May, however, the Hundred Acre team has encountered a series of challenges, including numerous supplier issues. The team had initially planned to install an off-the-shelf vertical hydroponics grow system, but then the supplier announced it was pulling out of North America.

Chris Corkery

“Overnight, we were missing the growing portion of our business model,” Corkery said. “So, we didn’t have a business.”

The team went back to the drawing board and decided to design its own grow system, using primarily locally sourced materials. It also uses a new GE lighting product, which is “optimized to create more white light” to aid in the plants’ growth and is easier on the eyes for employees who are working in the farm.

Corkery compares the system to a 1950s Cadillac: “Sturdy, not this overly expensive investment that’s shiny and put together by an investment fund. It’s grassroots. And it’s real local.”

Running a brand-new, bootstrapped startup, Corkery said he wasn’t eager to take on another project, but building a system in-house aligns within Hundred Acre’s ethos.

“Because we were no longer buying this product from China, we sourced all of our material from the U.S., mostly from Wisconsin,” he said. “To assemble it required us to contract local labor. … Instead of (our money) going to some foreign country, it went back to the local area. So, we basically made good on our mission before we even grow food. Now, we’re asking customers to follow in our footsteps.”

The supply chain issues also point to the larger mission of the farm: building supply chain resilience for food businesses, he said.

Hundred Acre will target two types of customers with its fresh greens. It will provide spring mix in bulk to customers such as restaurants, schools and grocers, and basil varieties as a “premium value-add” for local chefs. The facility is expected to produce about 1,500 pounds of greens weekly, for about 80,000 pounds a year. The crop cycle takes about 4-5 weeks from “seed to sale,” Corkery said, and being indoor and stacked vertically, the growing system can grow year-round at a more efficient rate than an outdoor farm.

Corkery noted that larger institutions with big budgets that ordinarily look for the most cost-effective option for their greens have shown interest in Hundred Acre.

“They are looking at how they could shop smarter,” he said.

Hundred Acre is hosting a soft-opening networking event in its space Thursday and is about “one week away from full-blown operation,” Corkery said. It’s currently testing its light and water system with its first crop and then will plant on a larger scale.

When fully operational, Hundred Acre expects to employ five full-time farm tech associates and managers to oversee the operation.

Corkery, who was a chef in New York before launching Planet to Plate, was first drawn to Milwaukee on the recommendation of an advisor, who was a native of the city.

Milwaukee made sense on a few levels: It has a lot of distressed real estate that could be put to new use, and the concept of urban farming already has traction here. Corkery also found the city to be navigable as an out-of-towner and an easy place to build a network.

An urban farm in Century City also makes particular sense for a city with industrial and agricultural roots like Milwaukee’s. The space, which abuts the 30th Street railroad corridor, offers the “beautiful contrast” of those two industries.

“This is a heritage thing,” Corkery said. “There is a history of agriculture and manufacturing in this town. It’s generational. We’re coming in and bringing the two together in a clean, sustainable way. It’s like green manufacturing, that’s really what this is.”

“We’re breathing new life into Century City,” he added.

Because of the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Corkery said he opted to bootstrap the company rather than seek outside investors.

“It was a lot of noise,” he said of the pendulum swing from VC being dampened at the onset of the pandemic to the robust investment activity that followed. “I felt it was a waste of time when we just wanted to get this done. Instead of spending a bunch of time and money … trying to pitch this, we thought, ‘let’s go do something.'”

While Hundred Acres is focused on getting the first farm off the ground, he envisions eventually replicating the model across the city and country. Once stable, the farm would be passed on to local ownership, he said. The Century City space would continue to serve as the headquarters for the potential network of farms.

Hundred Acre – which is based on a model of “radical transparency,” Corkery said – is also designed to host educational programming in an effort to cut through the opacity that surrounds food sourcing.

“Food is a mystery to a lot of people; it’s a mystery to people in a food desert,” he said.

A small classroom space will not only host employee trainings, but also be open for students and other community partners to learn about urban farming.

Corkery said the community so far has welcomed the company.

“They know this is bootstrapped. We’re not some big firm. We’re struggling like other people. It’s just a few people really passionate behind this,” he said.

Before it can scale the model, Corkery noted, the team has a lot of work ahead of it.

“We’re not done,” he said. “We have our work cut out for us. It’s trial and error. That’s how farms work. But we’ll get there.”

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