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Couple Turns Milwaukee Apartment into 'Microfarm'


A family on Milwaukee's west side is taking urban farming to a new place - inside their apartment.

Tony and Hillery Farrell have dedicated a section of their three-bedroom, 1400-square-foot apartment to grow “microgreens."

Clad in a khaki farming hat and work shirt, Tony has populated his indoor “farm” with sunflower microgreens. He plants them in double thick 10-by-20 inch standard greenhouse seeding trays with a rich growing soil, then coats that with a liberal amount of organic sunflower seeds.

Finally, he tops the seed layer with worm castings, otherwise known as poop, which he says are critical to the system.

“Worm castings really helps the seeds grow more vigorously and faster," he says.

He adds just enough filtered water "so the seeds aren’t swimming in water, but there’s still enough moisture that it will coax them to germinate."

Credit Susan Bence
One of eight bins containing several thousand worms each. Their production is critical to Farrell's farm.

Tony's seeding trays are placed on a shelf and are then covered with a large piece of corrugated cardboard. By keeping the microgreens in the dark, they’ll grow fast and strong.

In fact, within three to five days “under cover," Tony says the plants will grow and push that cardboard up and away.

In addition to the shelves for the seeding trays, Tony's also created a "sun section," where the trays go for a couple of days before harvest. In total, the microfarm takes up about sixty square feet of the Farrells' apartment.

Hillery says the system now works for her family, which include two sons. But living with a farm took some getting used to for the whole family.

“Managing smells is something we’ve learned the hard way," Tony says.

Two years of experimentation has paid off, but Hillery admits it took time to soothe her skepticism.

“My home was being transformed into a farm and it’s a big adjustment," she says. "Just putting the tray on the counter to harvest, we’re constantly sweeping and vacuuming around here and washing off counters."

Tony says the venture nearly collapsed early on when fruit flies and fungus gnats took over, until he purchased a heavy duty bug zapper.

Two months ago, the Farrells officially, albeit quietly, opened their business, Farmer Tony’s Mission Greens.

Salsa verde and superjuice are just two of the Farrell's sunflower microgreens recipes.

While Tony's name gets top billing, it was Hillery who inspired the entire project. Several years ago she traveled to Kenya on a medical mission. Tony says his wife returned home shaken by the number of children she witnessed going hungry.

He decided they had to try to help. Their conviction lead to Tony’s enrollment in a commercial urban agriculture class, and he slowly started experimenting at home.

Now the urban farmers are at full capacity, producing approximately 300 pounds of succulent microgreens a month. Hillery says they’ve experimented intensively with recipes.

“We’ve found that anywhere you can put spinach, you can put microgreens," she says. "We’ve tried out a lot of recipes and they’ve worked beautifully.”

Tony says their mission is to teach people what they’ve learned both locally and, eventually, internationally. He’s slated to work with a group teenagers setting up small-scale microgreen production systems.

“Because they’re such a quick turnaround and they can see some success and realize it," he says, "then hopefully along the way we’re able to develop the market for microgreens, so when they’re finished with this program and they’re 18 years old, they would have an opportunity to become microgreen entrepreneurs."

Tony says if his microgreens can move cardboard, why can’t he change the world?

Hillery and Tony Farrell have international aspirations for their sunflower greens system.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.