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More than lettuce: Supporting Riverview Gardens’ mission


We love talking about the Festival Foods’ story. You know, the one that starts with a little bit of borrowed money 70 years ago and a big dream of being a business owner. We also really enjoy talking about the amazing stories of the people and organizations who work hard to put great products on our store shelves.

That’s why we have spent time talking with our grower partners who produce pumpkins for our annual fall festival known as Pumpkin Blowout. We also got to tour the lanes of apple trees in a Green Bay area orchard that supplies the fruit to some of our stores in northeast Wisconsin. And we got to tap, tap, tap the fine cheese made by the masters at Belgioioso Cheese.

It’s so much fun to spend time with the dedicated professionals who work so hard to make the great products that you’ll find in our stores across the state. So of course we jumped at the chance to learn about the amazing operation and incredibly inspiring story of Riverview Gardens in Appleton. Yes, they grow some really great tasting lettuce for our Produce Department, but even more than that — this organization is growing productive people.

lettuce collage

It’s a farm with a mission, which is probably why Riverview Gardens says it’s “72 acres with a mission.” They’ve got a job training program called ServiceWorks. And the fact that they’re using an old golf course in a unique way just backs up their “use what we’ve got” mentality. They’ve successfully turned a golf course into an organic farm and a one-time country club pool into a solid growing operation.

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It’s called hydroponics and ultimately it’s farming without dirt. That water there? It was an outdoor pool converted to a hydroponics greenhouse.

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“Part of our process is to reuse everything that’s here. We could have built the greenhouse differently or done it on a different part of the property, but we really wanted to re-purpose the pool and use what’s here,” said Jane Carrott-Van Auken of Riverview Gardens.

Riverview Gardens figured out how to create a hydroponics growing operation in downtown Appleton and they think other communities could learn from their experience.

“We don’t know anyone who has ever done this over an old swimming pool so we worked with Miron Construction and several engineering firms to figure out how to do this,” she said. “Most hydroponic pools have a pool liner, but we did this a little differently with concrete fill. … it was a learning process from everyone involved.

“There are a lot of urban pools that aren’t being used or are in disrepair where people need food and this process can be replicated.”

Nine of the Festival Foods’ 22 locations in Wisconsin sell Riverview Gardens’ lettuce — mostly at our locations in the northeast part of the state from the Green Bay area down to Oshkosh, but we also have them at our La Crosse-Village store. As Festival Foods has grown so has Riverview Gardens’ production, said Andrew Brehmer, Assistant Director of Produce for Festival Foods.

“As their volume grew, we grew stores. … The similarities between Riverview and Festival Foods are innumerable,” Brehmer said, noting the commitment by both organizations to help area communities. Brehmer is working with Festival Foods’ distributor to increase the number of our stores where Riverview Gardens’ products are available.

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The hyrdoponics growing operation at Riverview Gardens can produce about 2,000 heads of lettuce a week, Carrott-Van Auken said. In recent months, the farm also started growing tomatoes, peppers and micro-greens.

On top of that, Riverview Farms has 25 acres of organic farmland, which includes 20 hoop houses (shown above). The solar greenhouses grow a variety plantings. The operation also is starting to see maturity in some fruit and nut trees planted as part of an orchard about 3 years ago.

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As you might image — with a production of about 2,000 heads of lettuce each week, this is a fast-growing process. It’s about six weeks from seed to one of our stores, which breaks down to three weeks growing in dirt from a seed and another three weeks growing on the pool. The hydroponics greenhouse looks like a patchwork quilt of great-looking greens.

“It’s actually a fairly simple system. It’s just ‘Add water and run,’ basically. The pool is a very forgiving medium … now we have a pretty good system down,” said Gill, who went from trial lawyer to grower at Riverview Gardens.

We agree and think you could say the same for the inspiring Riverview Gardens operation.

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