Gardening passion drives man to leave job for vertical farming startup

In the past several years, Michael Hostad has gone from a gardening novice to a self-proclaimed "farming nerd."

Since planting his first backyard salsa garden after landscapers installed a raised bed, Hostad has become somewhat of a tomato connoisseur — he grew 22 varieties last year and tests heirloom seeds for the national Seed Savers Exchange.

So when the opportunity arose to join Green Bay startup Fork Farms LLC to lead the company's new foundation focused on food equity, Hostad decided to take it. He will step down as executive director of The Commons at the nonprofit Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) at the end of September.

"This job sort of merges a variety of things that I really have come to enjoy, whether that's gardening or helping people raising funds for good causes," said Hostad, who will remain in Milwaukee. "These all kind of mashed up together in one job that I just couldn't pass up."

Founded in 2012 by Alex Tyink, Fork Farms is the agriculture technology startup behind Flex Farm, a hydroponic indoor growing system designed to make fresh food production highly cost-efficient and energy-efficient.

Starting in January, Hostad will serve as executive director of the new Fork Farms foundation, an organization he will build "from the ground up." The foundation will help connect community organizations that want to use the Flex Farm with funding to finance it, Hostad said. It will also address broader issues of food deserts and food equality across the country, he added.

"We've got a product and a technology and an approach that we can bring to the table, along with other groups nationally, to help solve some of these food-related challenges," Hostad said.

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