Mike Zak, pictured on the left, may very well be the poster child for Buffalo being a city with a heart. Born and bred in South Buffalo, he’s been involved in some way in many of the cause-related organizations around town, including the Buffalo Cooperative Federal Credit Union, Citizen Action, Buffalo Reuse, Grassroots Gardens, PUSH Buffalo, and the WNY Peace Center, just to name a few.
“I’ve been very interested in social and environmental justice from a young age,” Mike tells me. He decided to leave the world of nonprofits because it’s “wholly dependent on asking people for money” and start his own business so that he can help the community with the money he earns however he wants. The business, GroOperative, is a worker-owned, vertical farming cooperative that sustainably produces herbs, lettuces, microgreens, and fish using aquaponics.
I meet up with Mike on a Friday afternoon for a tour of the farm, which is located in the basement of Buffalo Roots Hydroponics and Organics at 3231 Main Street. Mike gives me the lowdown on the system, which looks like a massive basement science experiment. They grow fish in large barrels of water – they had catfish and goldfish when I was there, but they also grow decorative koi – and the water is sent through a filtration system that first separates out the solid waste, which is used for compost.
The remaining nutrient-rich microbial stew is fed through a network of pipes to nourish the hundreds of plants stacked around the farm. This is the same process that feeds plants in lakes, ponds, and marshy areas – humans have been using aquaponics to copy nature since the time of the Aztecs.
Experimentation is the driving force in this project. Mike and Josh Miller, GroOperative’s other worker-owner and co-founder, constantly perform little tests to get the right techniques, the right processes, and the right recipes for their products. They experiment with different materials and systems for the vertical farm infrastructure, such as lighting, soil substitutes, and harvesting techniques.
They even test out different soil compositions to create unique flavor profiles for their microgreens and other produce, which is something area chefs appreciate. The ultimate goal is to create a closed-loop farming ecosystem in which all resources necessary to run the operation are generated onsite.
“I think we’re on the horizon of sustainable food agriculture,” Mike announces. He explains that due to population increases, the way we produce food will shift in the next fifty years, as we begin to generate everything we need from waste, including our own power, and look to more resource-efficient ways of harvesting food. And yes, that includes raising insects for food.
While he cares deeply about the environment, the social side of sustainability is what most interests Mike. He wanted to find a way to create jobs that would step beyond looking at workers as just another commodity in the pursuit of profits, so he started the worker-owned co-op.
“Democracy in the work place is the ideal situation for workers, productivity, and increasing profits,” he explains. Considering that we spend 1/3 of our lives working, the benefits of consensus-based employment spill over into other areas of life. This is the kind of positive change that Mike works hard to create. “It’s a no brainer,” he says.
Mike and Josh are raising funds for energy efficiency upgrades and a certified packaging area in order to grow into their equipment, reach production capacity, and build their brand. They want to establish a multi-stakeholder cooperative by selling member shares to producers, purchasers, and consumers, and they plan to use the investments as capital to expand to a bigger facility.
GroOperative’s products are available for purchase at the Lexington Co-Op and are used as ingredients at The Lockhouse Distillery, the Black Sheep, Tempo, Buffalo Proper, Sea Bar, Ashker’s, Squeeze Juicery, Martin Cooks, OG Wood Fire Pizza, Carte Blanche and soon to be others. Anyone interested in more information about buying products or becoming a worker-owner can contact Mike or Josh through their website.
© 2016 Natalie Photiadis
Natalie Photiadis, a Buffalo native and recent repatriate, is working to strengthen the Buffalo community and promote more sustainable lifestyles.