Why I moved from California to Kansas to grow leafy greens in all seasons

A Freight Farms container on its way to a destination. (Submitted by Leafy Green Farms to Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Brad Fourby runs Leafy Green Farms LLC, a hydroponic shipping container farm in Pittsburg.

Google Maps says the distance between Sacramento, California, and Pittsburg, Kansas, is 1,842 miles.

This year has been tough, with COVID shut downs, a heart attack, bypass surgery and the loss of a loved one. All of this slowed me down but did not stop me from leaving California and starting a year-round container farm that will provide Pittsburg with fresh leafy vegetables like lettuces, basils and arugula.

Good nutrition starts with what is on your plate. Knowing where your food comes from and how it was grown is becoming more important to everyone.

While living in downtown Sacramento, I started Innovative Farms. I would build and help consult with others interested in aquaponics, growing fish and plants together in small places. Small towns have to wait and pay higher prices for food that has been grown and transported from California, China, Argentina and other countries. The produce is picked early so that it may ripen in transit on ships or trucks while being treated with chemicals along the way.

Through this work, I met longtime Pittsburg residents Rob and Sara Morris, owners of Energy Group Consultants. They told me that Pittsburg and Crawford County were considered a food desert — like much of the Midwest, grocers in Crawford County import their food, while producers export what they grow, such as corn and soybeans.

I would visit the city a few times a year and got to know some of the people and businesses. I loved the vibe of the place.

Rob and Sara and I discussed increasing the farm-to-table opportunities in Pittsburg. We talked about container farming, using repurposed shipping containers that have been outfitted with computer controlled vertical hydroponics. This highly efficient method requires no pesticides or herbicides to grow vegetables that can be harvested weekly regardless of the climate.

My previous experience with aquaponics reminded me of Freight Farms, a Boston farm manufacturer with a great track record of successful farms worldwide. Their farm design was expandable, and vegetables could grow in any weather condition.

I came up with the outline of a business plan. With three farms, my goal was to begin year round harvests this winter in Pittsburg and support the farm-to-table lifestyle.

I began making phone calls to the city. Compared to the regulation and tax heavy California, Kansas felt welcoming to new business. I heard the term “agri-tourism,” and the idea of new agricultural developments directly helping the area was exciting for many people I spoke with.

The city planners loved the idea of a new business that supported other existing businesses like restaurants, grocers and the farmers market community, many of them hurt by the COVID shutdowns.

Working with Pittsburg State University’s Small Business Development Center, I created a final business plan. Equity Bank signed on to assist with the Small Business Administration loan process.

So far it has been a real team effort. We really picked up steam after a call with Mike Green, Equity Bank’s small business banker. Turns out he grew up on a farm and instantly recognized the value the business would be to the entire area. We talked about how freshly picked non-chemically treated vegetables actually taste. The difference is night and day.

After that call I knew for sure Pittsburg would be the home of Leafy Green Farms.

The Kansas Healthy Food Initiative then stepped in and awarded the business $15,000 to assist with operating and equipment expenses. This kind of support was a real boost for everyone. KHFI and our farm goals are very much aligned.

It turned out that everyone agreed: Every Kansan should have access to healthy, affordable food.

The idea of more fresh food being produced in Pittsburg was something Live Well Crawford County director Brad Stroud told me he has been very supportive of. Joining their network has been a very positive experience.

We hope that by adding farms that are unique to the area that grow specialty crops, more people will visit the city and frequent some of the supporting businesses. We will take input from chefs and the community palate, and restaurants in the area will be able to offer menu items that their counterparts in large cities have no chance of offering. Our list of available herbs, roots and vegetables is long and our variety is huge, with Firecracker Leaf Lettuce, Sylvesta Butterhead and even Wasabi Arugula.

Sacramento County has around 1.5 million people, Crawford County 38,000. Many of my California friends and family are watching my move with great anticipation. When someone asks “Why Kansas?” my answer has remained the same since the beginning: Kansas is open for business.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.