CINCINNATI -- A little boy with no shirt sits on a pile of dirt, clutching a piece of broken shingle. Looking no older than 6 years old, he plays quietly and alone.
It has been years since Daniel Klemens encountered the boy in a parking lot near his office in Lower Price Hill, but the image remains just as vivid today as it was then.
“It hits you,” he said. “This is so much closer than you think.”
Klemens is the chief marketing officer and principal owner of Waterfields, a Cincinnati-based agriculture company founded in 2013 with a clear social mission: Empower struggling urban communities through the employment of local residents at livable wages. The company uses hydroponics (a soil-less growing method) to produce microgreens, edible flowers and other specialty produce indoors.
Microgreens are tiny, edible greens that are harvested at the seedling stage. Waterfields uses proprietary sheets of porous growth media alongside nutrient-treated water and optimal growth conditions -- such as light, temperature and humidity -- to efficiently grow produce in urban spaces. Depending on the type of microgreens, they are harvested anywhere from every eight to 40 days in 10-inch-by-20-inch trays and sold as live product.
“They are delivered with growth medium, which gives them better shelf life, flavor and texture,” Klemens said. “Every week, we move hundreds of these trays.”
The hydroponics facility at 2118 Clearwater St. in West End grows 30 different microgreens, including red cumin shiso, micro radish, anise hyssop and even “mirepoix,” a blend of lovage, scallion and micro carrot. It is also one of only nine U.S. Department of Agriculture farms in Ohio certified for good agricultural practices, meaning the produce is grown and handled as safely as possible to minimize microbial safety hazards.
In just three years, Waterfields has propelled its high-end produce into the kitchens of notable chefs such as Jose Salazar (Mita’s and Salazar), Mike Florea (Maribelle’s Eat + Drink) and Jason Rose (Jeff Ruby restaurants).
“We serve over 100 chefs,” Klemens said.
While Waterfields has successfully created jobs over the years to combat the root cause of poverty, it’s now expanding its social reach to touch the casualties of poverty: kids.
That desire to help impoverished kids led to a partnership with UpSpring, a nonprofit organization that serves the needs of homeless children in the region. During the month of November, Waterfields will donate $3 for every full tray of microgreens sold and $1 for all other specialty produce. One of Waterfields’ distributors, Premier Produce One, will match the proceeds.
“One of these (full trays of microgreens) will generate $6 for UpSpring,” Klemens said.
Mike Moroski, UpSpring’s executive director, said he thinks Waterfields' socially driven business model is one of the best-in-class. He recalled the moment he got a call from Klemens.
“My first thought was, ‘I think you guys are doing enough but I’ll take it,’” he said.
There are an estimated 7,000 homeless children in Greater Cincinnati, including Boone and Kenton counties in Northern Kentucky, and nearly half of all children in the city of Cincinnati -- 47.2 percent, or more than 30,000 kids -- live below the federal poverty threshold.
“These kids are either living with their friends or going house-to-house and don’t know when their next meal is coming,” Klemens said. “These are the kids that have a lot of toxic stress related issues, with some 6-year-olds documented with PTSD."
The proceeds from this collaboration will go toward the expansion of UpSpring’s afterschool program, which is currently available only at Newport Intermediate School.
“We have a school-based program now and we’re looking to adapt the program to transitional housing,” Moroski said. “We’ve talked to Cincinnati Public Schools and a homeless shelter in Northern Kentucky.”
“We’ve been looking for a while for an additional way to give back,” Klemens said. “I know UpSpring is trying to grow and they don’t have enough programs versus the kids that need help.”
“Anytime we have unexpected dollars come in, and this is completely unexpected, it’s amazing,” Moroski said, adding that he would be happy with even just 10 dollars. “I’m glad local businesses are choosing us as an avenue for philanthropy.”
Office: 917 State Ave.
About the company: Waterfields primarily sells to other businesses but locally, it offers a narrower product line in select retail outlets such as Madison’s at Findlay Market, Clifton Natural Foods and Jungle Jim’s. The hydroponics company also supplies regional markets such as Dayton, Cleveland and Nashville through distributors like Premier Produce One and Castellini.
Information: 513-729-7539; waterfieldsllc.com
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.