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Dec 28, 2016 04:22PM

Friday's Fresh on a quest: Indoor hydroponic farm grows in Davenport

By Cindy Hadish
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Andrew Freitag, of Davenport, opened Friday's Fresh Market indoor hydroponic farm in 2015. Now, lettuce, kale, microgreens, herbs and more have made it into a number of grocery stores, restaurants and more. In the photo, Freitag is pictured doing a demonstration at Hy-Vee with Friday's Fresh fennel, red vein sorrel, bibb lettuce, swiss chard and basil.
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Purple mizuna, grown in Friday's Fresh Market indoor hydroponic farm in Davenport.
As experts debate how to feed the world's growing population in the future, Andrew Freitag is taking action.

The Davenport man opened Friday's Fresh Market — an indoor hydroponic farm — with lofty goals: to grow the healthiest plants on earth and drastically reduce water consumption, soil erosion and the carbon footprint caused by the logistics involved with shipping fresh produce for long distances.

So far, he is succeeding.

In its first year alone, Friday's Fresh Market's lettuce, kale, microgreens, herbs and more have made it into a number of grocery stores, restaurants and other Eastern Iowa outlets, and onto customers' tables.

"They go on the shelf at Hy-Vee," on West Locust, West Kimberly and 53rd Street in Davenport, "or the (Quad Cities) Food Hub, or restaurants within hours of being harvested," Freitag says. "It's literally the freshest produce in the grocery store that day."

Freitag, 35, grew up farming in the Midwest, but worked as an engineer before starting his new venture in 2015.

The Freitag farm isn't typical. Instead, Friday's Fresh takes on an other-worldly appearance, with high-efficiency LED lighting in deep red and blue hues to mimic sunlight, and 7-foot-tall vertical growing towers in a 40-foot-long upcycled shipping container nearly the size of a semi-trailer in Davenport.

The 4-inch-thick walls serve as insulation, allowing the freight container to sustain its own ecosystem inside, with a year-round, consistent growing environment.

Crunchy romaine, smooth butterhead and other varieties of lettuce, as well as arugula and kale; herbs such as basil, mint and cilantro, and microgreens including mizuna and colorful bull's blood beets grow in rows of hanging vertical towers.

The towers are rotated throughout the various stages of cultivation, and the rows allow for just the right flow of air, water and lighting. All-natural blends of minerals and vitamins are used to feed the plants, and chemicals are not sprayed on the crops.

Freitag notes that the system uses 90 percent less water, 50 percent fewer nutrients, compared to traditional farming. And, because the plants grow hydroponically in water, the system causes no soil erosion.

In typical shipments coming from places such as California, 20 percent of the produce might already go bad by the time it reaches the Midwest, he says. "With ours, it eliminates waste. They're not throwing any of it away."

That's because the greens from Friday's Fresh Market are delivered the same day they are harvested, arriving in stores and other destinations within hours.

Much of it is sold in clamshell containers for ready-made salads. Other portions go to chefs at stores or restaurants.

By selling the produce at wholesale prices, Freitag realizes that Friday's Fresh Market is taking a smaller profit margin, but that's where the company's mission comes into play: to improve the quality of life by providing the Quad-Cities area with healthy eating options.

"From a business standpoint, it's not as profitable," he says. "But we feel there is a big need to support the grocery stores because of the lack of fresh food they have there."

In fact, it was after becoming frustrated with the expensive, wilted produce that area grocery stores had to offer that Freitag was inspired to go into hydroponics.

"It almost seemed like living in the Midwest equaled not having real fresh produce on the dinner table," he says, on the company's website. "So, after a few family meetings, we decided to take business in our own hands, and we created Friday's Fresh Market."

The name comes from his German family name, which means "Friday."

Freitag and his father had a separate business with cargo containers before he realized their potential use in hydroponics. The system uses cutting-edge automated technology that can be monitored and adjusted remotely, though Freitag spends a large amount of time at the farm, in addition to marketing and other aspects of the business.

The first year was a trial with leafy green produce to see what grows well and what the market demands, he says.

Oftentimes, the produce sells out before the next delivery. The greens are harvested at their "baby" stage, meaning the plants, even kale, are tender and at their height of nutritional value.

That compares to most long-distance shipments of produce, which are harvested later to withstand travel in a less tender stage.

"With our stuff, it's very tender and can be eaten raw," Freitag says.

Chefs at places such as Barley & Rye Bistro in Moline; Hemispheres Bistro in Bettendorf; and the Crow Valley Golf Club in Davenport are especially appreciative of the local greens. Fresh Blends in Bettendorf, and Simple Superfood Cafe in Davenport also use Friday's Fresh Market's produce. Freitag says there also are plans to expand into other area Hy-Vees this year, too.

Freitag is looking at other expansion options in Davenport, such as converting space considered unusable into a thriving farm. Each cargo container can produce 30,000 pounds of fresh produce annually, in just 320 square feet.

"We make a lot of use out of a little space," he says.

The site does not operate using solar power yet, but it's ready to as the technology becomes available.

Freitag sees the system as the wave of the future. As a farmer and engineer, he has long pondered how to combat issues such as soil erosion.

"How do we face this huge challenge to have sustainable food with outdoor farming? The only way to do it is to move it inside," he says, citing the hydroponic system capable of producing commercial-scale yields in any climate and any season.

"This has proven to be a good solution."
Cindy Hadish writes about local foods, farmers markets and the environment at homegrowniowan.com. For more information about Friday's Fresh Market, visit fridaysfreshmarket.com.

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