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Second Chances Farm secures $1.5M investment, eyes growth

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Caleb Brown checks on some of the plantings at Second Chances Farm in Wilmington. The company is receiving increasing investment and attention. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON – For Second Chances Farm (SCF), what began as a dream just a few years ago has quickly turned into a growing spotlight, increasing financial strength and the hope of one day replicating its burgeoning successes elsewhere.

The company, founded and led by well-known fundraiser and marketer Ajit George, seeks to solve several different societal issues at once, including recidivism, climate change, unemployment, and food insecurity. It does so through vertical farming, or the indoor, hydroponic growing of plants, and exclusively hiring those leaving prison.

After opening in late 2019, the state’s first vertical farm began tending more than 60,000 plantings in February. To date, it has hired two dozen former inmates, which gained the attention of the Trump administration.

Founder Ajit George wants to address many societal issues through Second Chances Farm. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Earlier this year, it was featured in a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report on Opportunity Zones, a redevelopment program that focuses on underserved communities through tax-deferred investments. Located in the Riverside community in Wilmington’s northeast, SCF is located in an Opportunity Zone, which has helped it attract investors.

On July 20, two appointed members of the Trump administration attended a showcase for the company that highlighted its journey and growth. More than a dozen of the employees – who include Blacks and whites, men and women, Delaware natives and transplants, high school dropouts and a Harvard University grad – shared their personal stories for Scott Turner, executive director of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council, and Pastor John “Tony” Lowden, executive director of the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry.

“Being here is not a second chance, it saved my life. It’s a last chance,” said Kalief Ringgold, who served years in prison after falling into Wilmington’s drug dealing and thanked SCF with helping him to turn his life around.

“We have a remarkable group of saints who used to be sinners,” George added, noting that five employees have begun a yearlong, entrepreneurs–in-residence program.

While the guests got a tour of SCF’s current 2,400-square-foot, 50-module Farm 1, Second Chances Farm is preparing for a much larger expansion set to be completed by the end of the year. Construction on Farm 2 at its 3030 Bowers St. headquarters will begin in the next few weeks.

It will contain 350 modules, creating a 700% increase in yield for the company and an expectation to harvest a total of about 4.4 million plantings a year. Second Chances Farm grows varieties of kale, lettuce, and arugula; basil, bok choy, Swiss chard, cilantro, dill, parsley, sorrel, and leaf broccoli.

The company recently celebrated the notification that it has secured $1.5 million from its lead investor, who George would only identify as an institutional investment fund, toward Farm 2. It was enough to ensure the project got underway.

The startup won’t only be backed by large venture capitalists, however, as SCF is preparing to launch its first WeFunder campaign around Labor Day, George said. That online platform will allow investments as small as $500 for a tiny piece of the company.

That platform, under federal regulations set by the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, has a 12-month cap of just over $1 million that can be raised. George said that SCF looked at raising equity through such micro-investments principally because of the growing support behind the business.

“We had never thought we wanted to open to the general public, but we had so many who I call ordinary people who wanted to be part of Second Chances,” he said. “We found that the crowdfunding enabled us to have non-accredited investors and it’s a chance to broaden our connections.”

It’s not the first time that SCF’s business plan has adjusted. The original plan called for the bulk sale of thousands of cuttings of produce to restaurant groups and grocery stores. It was planning on delivering its first batches of produce to restaurants on March 16 – the day that Gov. John Carney closed restaurants amid the COVID-10 pandemic.

With its customers now closed and a perishable good ready for delivery, Second Chances Farm quickly pivoted to home delivery of its product, setting up a website portal to take orders. Over the past few months, more than 200 have enrolled in the temporary service for $25 a week.

“We pivoted in 100% from the restaurant to farm-to-table, and now restaurants are slowly coming back,” George recalled of that initial revenue-saving move.

Now, Second Chances Farm is preparing for a bigger client though: Kenny Family of ShopRites. It has contracted with the six-store grocery chain to begin selling its produce in August, starting with its basil.

George explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has actually helped that relationship.

“They have a tremendous demand for locally grown food, because the reality is the food supply that is disrupted is coming from California. But if it’s local, it’s not disrupted,” he said.

While Second Chances Farm’s modules are currently fully of lettuce, kale and more, a different green is also in its future: hemp.

Hydroponic hemp like this trial planting may be a future cash cow for Second Chances Farm. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

The company was one of the first in Delaware to obtain a state license to grow the non-narcotic version of cannabis. In the past few months, it has grown a small hydroponic trial of hemp plants that have produced promising results.

Todd Erickson, chief growing officer at Second Chances Farm, said that the industry standard for hemp yield was 1 gram of flower per planting, and their trial run produced 2 to 5 grams per planting. With hydroponically grow plants able to be harvested every eight weeks, they could be looking at a revenue boon for the plant that creates the therapeutic cannabidiol (CBD) but not the narcotic tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Delaware is seeing increasing interest in the CBD industry, with AgroRefiner recently opening an extraction plant in New Castle to create the sought-after CBD oil used in products. George said that he hasn’t spoken with that company yet, but he was already getting interest from others in the industry who heard about their proposed pesticide-free, hydroponic outfit.

George said that he hopes to decide on the future of Second Chances Farm’s hemp farm around October, but with positive test results in hand he anticipates breaking ground on the nearby 72,000-square-foot farm in 2021.

With an estimated project cost of $5 million to $8 million, it will mean another round of fundraising for George who has made a career of it. He’s not worried about the prospects for the hemp farm though as the market for CBD products has exploded in the past few years.

“That’s much easier actually to raise, hemp is black gold,” he said with a smile. “We expect to be serious hemp growers.”

By Jacob Owens

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