- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

NEENAH, Wis. (AP) - Two Neenah natives and a college pal are about to take a big step toward creating a network of year-round indoor urban farms that grow produce just steps away from consumers’ kitchens.

Grow Local’s founders/owners are Neenah natives Steve Catlin, 27, and Calvin Andersen, 27; and Germantown native Alex Fehrenbach, 26.

The three entrepreneurs started Grow Local four years ago on a portion of Catlin’s parents’ hobby farm on the fringes of Neenah, USA Today Network-Wisconsin (https://post.cr/1U0xOe1 ) reported. They developed their year-round aquaponics greenhouse to grow greens and herbs and created a vertical system to grow mushrooms.

Currently, they sell to 25 restaurants, at farm markets and directly to consumers, mostly women who sign up to get weekly boxes of produce for home cooking.

They’re working toward starting mushroom production in a 6,000-square-foot Milwaukee building, which is three times the size of their Neenah operation. A successful Kickstarter campaign in January helped generate start-up costs. They’ll add greens, herbs and produce later.



“We are in our seed stage of growth,” said Catlin. “What we’ve completed over the last four years is the pilot phase. We had a good idea of what we needed to do. We had a lot to learn. It gave us enough time to figure out what we could produce profitably.

“We’re getting up to the size that is substantial enough to be a real, proper stand-alone business,” he said. “The next stage is scaling it up. We’re trying to drive this thing into being a national enterprise of selling and producing. We want to put a variety of hubs around the U.S.”

Catlin developed a growing system for oyster, king trumpet and other gourmet mushrooms. In Milwaukee, he’ll produce 100 to 200 pounds of mushrooms a week to start, and eventually get up to a half ton.

Revenue from their part-time Neenah operation was $40,000 last year. That could potentially balloon to nearly $1 million after a few years of growth, said Andersen, because of increased capacity in a larger market.

“Milwaukee is a very large market for foodies, for our customers. There’s a large demand from chefs for unique, hard-to-get food products. Things are difficult to get in the winter. Our goal is to have year-round production of all our products,” said Andersen.

The three committed themselves to full-time hours, shedding many of their side jobs. The Kickstarter campaign was the boost they needed to get over the hump. “We have a sustainable business model at our current level of funding,” said Andersen. “We’re also looking for private investors for the $400,000 expansion. We have raised a portion of that already.”

Part of the company’s success is that it promotes its old school practices with new technology.

“I’m a farmer. I imagine I’m doing the same tasks people did 100 years ago,” said Fehrenbach. At the same time, he’s adept at social media and has pumped up the business using Snapchat, Instagram, Periscope, Facebook and Twitter.

One of Grow Local’s first customers was Peter Kuenzi, owner and chef at Zuppas in Neenah. He’s watched the company grow and said he’s impressed with both their quality produce and larger goals.

“They know what they’re doing,” Kuenzi said. “They’re likable guys, real go-getters, risk-takers. They’re young and very ambitious. They’re trying to do some interesting things.”

Kuenzi has been a proponent of buying local well before it became a trend, and he’s pleased to see there’s more interest in it now. “Definitely there’s a scene in Milwaukee, more than there is here. But our area is catching on.”

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Information from: Post-Crescent Media, https://www.postcrescent.com

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