By KATIE MOEN For The Westfield Leader
WESTFIELD — For Greg Redington and Michele Modestino, co-founders of Redi-Farms, sustainability is much more than a buzzword.
The couple, who also own RedCom Design and Construction, recently secured approval from the Westfield mayor and council to move forward with an innovative farming initiative that could change the way the Garden State thinks about agriculture.
“I think the pandemic really kicked things into high gear. It was almost impossible to find decent produce with any kind of regularity, let alone anything organic,” said Mrs. Modestino (Redington), a long-time vegetarian turned vegan. “I think it made people start looking more closely at locally-sourced options, and for Greg and I, it was the jumpstart we needed to get things off the ground.”
When complete, Mr. Redington said, Redi-Farms, located at 610 North Avenue East, will be one of the only fully-vertical hydroponic (a more environmentally-friendly process that allows plants to be grown in sand, gravel or liquid) growing operations in the state.
“Vertical farming is not a new concept, but we honestly think that it’s the way of the future,” said Mr. Redington, who first learned about the technique back in college.
According to information provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, vertical farms “help meet growing global food demands in an environmentally-responsible and sustainable way by reducing distribution chains to offer lower emissions, providing higher-nutrient produce, and drastically reducing water usage and runoff.”
“This method saves a ton of space and allows us to grow fresh, organic produce without the use of pesticides. It also negates some of the environmental challenges presented by the conventional farming techniques, like soil erosion and nutrient depletion,” said Mr. Redington, who added that the farm will be able to grow the same amount of produce as a 40-acre field due to its condensed format.
The Redi-Farms building, expected to open for its first phase of operation in the spring of 2022, also will contain a predominately plant-based restaurant with plenty of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options; a retail store that will provide local residents with fresh produce from the farm and other responsibly-sourced products; a teaching kitchen that will be used to educate adults about nutrition and responsible cooking techniques; a banquet/catering hall for private or community-based events; and a not-for-profit educational component that will help to introduce sustainable farming to local youth.
“We’re very excited about this,” said Mrs. Modestino. “Even though I’m an architect by trade, I’ve been studying nutrition for a while now. I just sort of had to as a vegetarian and as a mom. Greg has been talking about the benefits of vertical farming since the 80s, and we wanted to find a way to bring all of these concepts together.”
The farm and its add-ons will be housed in the old Handler Manufacturing building (renamed The Greene Building to better suit its new purposes). While the Redingtons could have easily used their unique skills as the owners of an engineering and design firm to custom-build the Redi-Farms operation, Mrs. Modestino said it would have been too environmentally harmful to do so.
“We did not want to start out this sustainable operation by tearing down a structure and dumping a bunch of waste in a landfill,” she said. “This way, we get to accomplish multiple goals at once. We get to start our farm, and we also get to save this cool old building from demolition. We were both very attracted to the idea of using an existing resource rather than starting from scratch.”
The 32,000-square-foot building was originally constructed about 100 years ago to house a commercial laundry facility, Mr. Redington said. It was later purchased by the Handler family, who used the space to manufacture dental instruments.
“We approached Bill Lehman [the former owner of the property] with our ideas and he was so thrilled. It turned out that he had actually gone to the School of Agriculture at Rutgers before deciding to buy his father-in-law’s business, so he agreed to sell to us at a very reasonable price to help us make it happen,” said Mrs. Modestino.
So far, the Redi-Farms proposal has been met with excitement and enthusiasm from the community at large.
“The opening of Redi-Farms next year provides Westfield an opportunity to be a leader in the growing green economy, having demonstrated our commitment to sustainability by attaining silver certification by Sustainable NJ for the first time ever this past year,” said Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle in a letter to the editor penned in mid-July.
Still, the road to greener pastures has not always been a smooth one.
“The Handler Building was included in the town’s 2013 Affordable Housing plan, and zoned for residential use, meaning the only development allowed was a 27-unit residential apartment building that included six affordable housing units,” Mayor Brindle explained. “Fortunately, because of our good standing with the Fair Share Housing Center, they were amenable to allowing the transfer of our six unit affordable housing obligation to another site, as long as the development of that new site was imminent.”
Ultimately, the Handler building’s housing obligations were transferred to the developer of the Williams Nursery site to make it possible for the Readingtons to break ground.
The Redi-Farms proposal will now go before the Westfield Planning Board for approval as the next mandated step in the redevelopment process.
“At the moment, we’re only allowed to make structural changes to the building,” Mr. Redington said, “but that gives us plenty to work with as we continue to plan and get ready.”
In the meantime, Mrs. Modestino said, Redi-Farms is still on the hunt for an experienced and creative chef to bring its new restaurant to life.
“We’re going to be pretty picky about this,” she said. “The right chef can make a plant-based menu that appeals to everyone, even meat eaters. At the end of the day, this project is about providing healthy, accessible options that the whole community will be able to enjoy.”
The public can follow @redifarms on Instagram for updates on the project.