Fork Farms is on a mission to help feed the world
The classic embodiment of the American work ethic, Alex Tyink has a motor that simply refuses to stop running.
But what fuels that motor is something that once upon a time Tyink did not think much about. He thinks about food a lot now.
The Appleton, Wis., native has set his sights to help change the world with his company’s hydroponic growing systems. It’s a homegrown American solution to a global problem: how to get much healthier food in the hands of a lot more people.
Tyink is not convinced the richest country in the world excels at feeding its people in the best way possible. Or that its citizenry thinks enough about what and how it eats.
“I think it’s time to slow down and get more connected to where our food comes from,” he said.
Tyink then opened one of the systems he helped design, the Fork Farms Generation 4 Flex Farm, an indoor growing system — think a futuristic tanning bed, for plants — with the ability to grow 20 pounds of leafy greens in less than a month.
At harvest time the Flex Farm explodes in green. It’s a long way from Tyink’s initial effort of a decade ago, a flood-prone conglomeration of wood, garbage bags, and burlap.
Tyink smiles at the thought of it. It’s a smile with serious wattage, like the bulb at the center of the Flex Farm, which finds itself at the forefront of a movement to bring fresh food to the world.
It began in song. Ten years ago, Alex Tyink was pursuing a career in opera.
His father, Steve, a man who has spent his entire career in business innovation, describes his son as a free spirit.
“The artistic side comes from his mother,” said Steve.
After studying voice and opera and earning his degree at Northwestern in Chicago, Tyink was offered a contract to sing with Opera Tampa, the company founded by Anton Coppola, uncle of director Francis Ford Coppola.
And sing he did. Traveled a lot too.
Though Florida-based, Tyink more often found himself in the Big Apple, as the staff of Opera Tampa was based there. In New York the team would study and learn an opera, fly back to Tampa to perform, then head back to study the next. The windows between performances could last months, and during one of the longer stretches a chance meeting with a “dude on a rooftop” in Brooklyn planted a seed that would germinate into Fork Farms.
During one sweltering New York summer, an opportunity presented itself that appealed to Tyink’s generous nature as well as his artistic side. He pitched in at a rooftop garden tended by a William Blake-like character, an offbeat artist who plunked down a patch of green in the urban jungle in order to feed needy families.
At the end of his apprenticeship, Tyink received a bag of lettuce in gratitude for his help, sparking the need to make a few changes.
Eating better was one. Committing time and effort in order to create an indoor growing system another. Then throw in an entirely new career path.
“I decided to fire my agent and manager,” Tyink said.
Tyink took a job as a bartender and focused his artistic mind to designing something that could grow stuff. Early successes with a few plants of his own was cause for delight, yet Tyink’s mind pondered the possibilities of more significant yields and how that might be achieved.
Tyink started messing around with different materials and designs to grow food in his somewhat cramped apartment, which necessitated vertical farming. At the time, there were two models for vertical farming: either a tower with a bunch of plants growing out of it, or an arrangement of tiers. Existing systems — marketed primarily to schools — were expensive, and no one was willing to scale the program in order to feed a lot of people.
Tyink got the idea that if you took a flat surface and inverted it a little bit, you could use one central light to feed the V-shaped design, limiting the square footage needed for the unit, so you could grow more plants in less space.
He used plastic sheeting. An X-acto knife. A heat gun. The opera singer-turned engineer (“I’m not an engineer”) built that system in his apartment, and it worked. Tyink produced microgreens he sold to a high-end restaurant a few blocks from his apartment.
Revisions would continue, like replacing the burlap with a white cloth, which seemed to spur growth. But Tyink knew the key was light, and his idea was to make best use of light by wrapping the plants around the light source.
There would be many, many iterations. Like an aria, it would take practice, determination and sheer will to get it right.
You Are What You Eat
When it comes to taking an active part in the growth of what you eat, Tyink explains its power in terms of sweat equity and emotional connection.
“Hey, when you do your own landscaping, you think your yard is the best in the neighborhood,” he said. “When you grow your own cherry tomatoes, they’re just going to taste better.”
As Tyink started growing his own food, he began to eat better. And it was transformational.
“It completely changed me. Made me feel better. It was just one of those times in your life when you decide to stop what you’re currently doing and go on this whole new path,” said Tyink. “It was that big of a moment for me.”
Dietary shifts paid psychological dividends Tyink wasn’t even looking for.
“For me, eating better created a kind of clarity, a cleanliness in my thinking, almost like a fog lifting,” Tyink said. “Fresh food and mental health are so interconnected.”
Thinking and feeling better, Tyink was naturally up for working out more. It was a nice cycle, and he embraced it without over-thinking it. He credits this as much as anything for staying true to the dietary path he embarked upon as a young man in New York.
“If eating better is something just hanging over your head, or fear-based, it’s so much more difficult,” said Tyink. “It’s easier if you just want to.”
Though a strong proponent of better eating, Tyink isn’t preachy. If requested, he’ll generously share his story, and he’ll ask for yours in return. He has a capacity to immediately connect with people; he’s authentic and engaging. Those very qualities can also be used to describe his connection with food (fresh ingredients, small plates, experimentation, sharing, fun) and his passion for what Fork Farms is all about (getting people involved in the fresh, local food movement).
So, when Tyink shares the mantra of Fork Farms, you’re pretty sure he had a hand in creating it:
We believe in the power of good food. We have made it our mission to unleash the power of fresh food production for happier, healthier people.
When Tyink moved back to Wisconsin to be closer to family and to start one of his own, he brought with him the wood version and the idea that he would “build a bunch of these systems, start a farm, grow a bunch of lettuce.”
He got an offer from Goodwill to run their community gardens and thought it might be smart to learn about business before starting a business.
Kim Bassett of Bassett Mechanical, who was on the Goodwill Board of Directors, saw the concept, liked it, lent him one of their engineers, and donated the materials.
The Generation 1 Flex Farm was born.
The Boys and Girls Club of the Fox Valley was the first adopter of the Gen 1 system, and from there Fork Farms heard from many other Gen 1 customers. After 8 placements of the system it was evident the demand for this was strong, but scalability would need to increase. Tyink started looking at plastics and Gen 2..
“Barriers to entry have always been a real focus,” said Tyink. “How do you make the system easy to assemble, use less water, reduce inputs, streamline the manufacturing, make the price point competitive? That’s the impetus for the tech.”
Following a year of engineering, the Generation 2 Flex Farm — made out of recyclable plastic — was launched.
By the end of 2018, they had completed 80 installations.
Word got around. Early adopters heard about the system and would take steps to get them.
Neenah High School science teacher Emily Bennett’s story is typical.
“When I first saw the Fork Farms system, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to have one of those!’” said Bennett.
And the search for funding began. Bennett had never applied for any kind of grant but felt she had the right qualities (“I’m stubborn and competitive”) to go for it. Through Bennett’s tireless efforts, the Neenah Joint School District now has 13 Flex Farms systems; two are in her room.
“The kids really took control of it,” said Bennett. “They create a business model, advertise, grow and sell the product. And high school kids buy this lettuce like crazy. It’s awesome.”
Tyink loves these stories, which often follow a similar pattern.
“People hear about the Flex Farm, get the info and learn what it can do, and then they just say, ‘Let’s go!’” said Tyink. “From the beginning, this thing had a very organic, grass roots kind of feel.”
Generation 3 was launched at the end of 2018. The new model was shippable, and they’ve sold more than 250 systems since. In May 2020, Fork Farms launched Generation 4, with tech that makes an already user-friendly system even more so.
Fork Farms indoor farm installations, now in 22 states, populate health care, school, food service, community service, hospitality and home settings to name a few. Supply chain issues laid bare by COVID-19 have resulted in huge demand for Flex Farms in the hunger relief space, where Fork Farms can make a significant impact as well.
“People from all over the country are reaching out, saying ‘We aren’t going to get fresh food for this massive increase in hungry people due to rising unemployment rates, so can you help us?’” said Tyink. “We are shipping systems out to address that need.”.
Fork Farms continues to focus on its core competency: their product. Innovation continues as the company works on the design of products ranging from a tabletop unit for a single family to a franchise model for commercial farming.
Tyink says the success of the venture depends on doing what’s right. When you localize food and bring food closer to people, says Tyink, they become part of the solution and adopt desirable behaviors.
“I’m a big believer that when the intent is pure, when you’re really doing something for the right reasons, great things are going to happen,” said Steve.
Food culture is something we don’t always think about. Over time, the country has gone deeper and deeper into convenience: Frozen meals. Fast Food. Meals ready to eat. A driven lifestyle that drives the way we eat.
There’s no question Alex Tyink is driven, but he slows down now when it comes to food. He’s pushing for that kind of thinking to take root across the country.
He has no intention of stopping there.
Tyink’s vision is global, and his indoor farms are providing the fresh food consistency so desperately needed in the world.