KENOSHA — When Foxconn announced its Smart Cities–Smart Futures competition that seeks good ideas across numerous areas, Gateway Technical College instructor Kate Field didn’t think about energy or technology.
She thought about food production. The just-retired horticulture instructor, who until last Friday taught at the Kenosha Gateway campus’ Pike River Horticulture Center, survived the second of three cuts in the competition.
Field said when she heard about the contest she thought about things such as robots, artificial intelligence and technology, “and I thought, what about food? And what about nature and greenery and plants, of course, because that’s what I’m always thinking about.
“And I thought, well, 500 words, I can do that — easy. And I did it.”
Field, who taught at Gateway for 27 years, said her proposal evolved along the way to submittal. She’d been working with hydroponics for multiple years and itemized the advantages: “It’s so much faster, so much cleaner, so much safer, so much less resources, less water; less soil; no risk of soil contaminants — the list goes on.”
“I started out with: Hey, you can’t have a smart city without smart food, and the way they directed the questioning in further rounds made you focus it into something real. … You can’t just have a big idea — you have to have something in place that makes it happen.”
Wisconsin Urban Food Initiative
Field named her Smart Cities plan the Wisconsin Urban Food Initiative. Interestingly, it goes well beyond just food production. “It’s sort of a research and development facility for urban food ideas, based primarily on hydroponics, food production,” she said.
Many people are producing food just outside of cities, Field said. “That’s not a new idea.
“But what about the inner cities that are being abandoned and left to fend for themselves?”
Field continued, “The other part of what Foxconn was looking at was attracting talent and making Wisconsin a kind of place that people want to live, work and play.”
As the mother of two millennials and aunt to five others, Field said, she knows that that demographic wants to live and play in place, and suburbia is not attractive to them.
So, her idea is to take old buildings and convert them into hydroponic facilities with a greenhouse on the roof, apartments or condominiums in the middle, and on the bottom floor an “incubator kitchen,” year-round farmers market/public market, flexible space for workshops and events, with a café and a health-and-wellness facility also a part of the building complex.
“I’m calling it an ag-tech community,” she said.
By incubator kitchen, Field said she means a space which could support micro-industries for neighborhood residents. “Such as food processing — maybe jams and jellies or herbal mixtures, soaps, lotions — any number of things that could come from having kitchen space that they could experiment with.
“They could also be places to have cooking or canning demonstrations.”
Her chosen building
After driving around a little, Field chose the building at 1215 State St., the former Merchants Moving & Storage, now the Merchants Division of Budd Van Lines, after a recent acquisition; the structure is currently for sale.
“Because it’s a really beautiful old building, a historical building which deserves to be renovated and reloved. And it’s in an emerging neighborhood, you might say,” and not far from the two Downtown buildings Foxconn has bought for future innovation centers.
The building also has concrete storage sections attached to the original structure.
“So, phase two would be to really start partnering with … maybe pharmaceutical companies, and chemical companies, beverage companies in the area: anybody from SC Johnson to Abbott Labs to the south, all the Milwaukee pharmaceuticals because hydroponics is also developing a lot of pharmaceutical products right now. They’re really starting to create vaccines hydroponically.”
Hydroponics are also being used to produce flavorings for food and beverages, which could be extracted on site with the right equipment; the same for CBD oil.
“Even if it’s not Merchants,” Field said, “… there’s no shortage of old buildings to do something like this in.”
“So,” she said, “the model is also that we can take that (idea) and translate it to anywhere in the world.”
Cost, revenue estimates
To put some costs to her proposal, Field brought in a consultant. Using the figure of 36,000 square feet of rooftop hydroponics production area, they estimated $16 million for phase one and $2.7 million in annual revenue potential just for that phase. That would include food production, rent from the farmers market, café and wellness center; and rent from the living units.
If Field’s proposal is chosen as a winner, she said the next steps would likely be up to Foxconn. But she said she’d like to be involved, perhaps as executive director of such a project, along with her consultant.
“Nobody knows what (Foxconn officials) are going to do with any of these ideas,” she said.
But she does know there are highly mechanized, roboticized hydroponics operations in Europe, particularly The Netherlands.
“The robotics part of it and the (artificial intelligence) part of it, there’s huge opportunities,” Field said.
And Foxconn knows a good bit about those technologies.