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Window Farming Opens a Whole New World For Sussex Man

The newest environmental phenomenon called window farming has more than 18,000 experimenters worldwide, but Sussex's Erik Bunk has a special reason why he turned to healthy living.

There came a point in Erik Bunk’s life when he needed to step back and take a serious look at nutrition.

With a son he loved more than anything and the motivation to turn his life around, Bunk made a complete life change — quite literally repairing his body and mind.

“When my son was born, I was about 300 pounds,” Bunk admitted. “I was the example of everything someone shouldn’t be. I drank a lot of soda and I ingested a lot of great tasting foods without realizing that I was killing myself slowly. It wasn’t until my son was 2 years old and I found him asking for the soda in my hand, but I wouldn’t let him have it. It made me look at what I was doing to myself.”

Bunk turned to something he grew up learning about: gardening. He decided to start eating natural foods, and with a dad who always had an old-fashioned garden growing in the backyard, Bunk’s natural green thumb finally sprouted.

But it didn’t turn into a full-time job before a small tragedy.

“Last year I was laid off from two companies, so I turned to something I’ve been doing for years,” Bunk said. “It really became the genesis of something great, something I’m so much more passionate about and something my son cares about.”

Now Farmer Brown Landscape and Nursery Services LLC. is a full-time job, and Bunk — known to some as "Farmer Brown" — is on the verge of breaking into an entirely new realm of horticulture: window farms.

Growing Your Own Food, Wherever You Live

Made from things like recycled bottles, a small air pump and nutrient-rich water, window farms are set up vertically in a window for sunlight and can produce a huge array of vegetables.

The idea was first developed in 2009 by Britta Riley, an artist and technologist looking to grow her own vegetables in her tiny New York City apartment. While giving a lecture at the TED Conferences in 2011, she explained how she came up with the idea and outlined how it grew from her tiny apartment to a worldwide phenomenon that now includes Bunk in Sussex.

“There are days, and I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but there are days that I palpably feel how much I rely on other people for pretty much everything in my life, and some days that can be a little scary,” Riley said during her TEDTalk.

Riley recalled reading a New York Times article by famed nutrition writer Michael Pollan that said if everyone grew even some of their own food, it would greatly improve the environment. After hearing about experimental gardens NASA was testing, Riley realized her miniscule apartment was about as forign as outer space and began to build.

"There are days that I palpably feel how much I rely on other people for pretty much everything in my life, and some days that can be a little scary.”

“The first few systems were these leaky, loud, power-guzzlers that Martha Stewart would have definitely never approved,” Riley said. “So to bring on more co-developers, what we did was we created a social media site on which we published the designs, we explained how they worked, and we even went so far as to point out everything that was wrong with these systems. And then we invited people all over the world to build them and experiment with us.”

Bunk is now the first person in Sussex and one of the very few people in Wisconsin experimenting with the in-home, vertical gardens. However, worldwide, more than 18,000 people are now exploring the new green technology.

From a group of 47 window farmers in Chicago to a group in Sweden with 144 members, people are taking Riley's original design, improving it and posting their success stories on the website. And the explosion of interested parties in the past three years has garnered tons of media attention in the environmental world, not to mention NPR calling it a "do-it-yourself veggie venture."

As a member of the Windowfarms community, Bunk is taking his passion for producing healthy, organic vegetables and applying it to his designs. In addition, his now 4-year-old son is right at his side learning about healthy foods with him.

“I’ve changed my design to be more efficient, and I’m a member on the Windowfarms website, so I can post my designs on there for other people to see,” Bunk said. “And my son loves. It. He loves learning how seeds grow, and now, getting to watch the whole window garden setup, he’s almost as eloquent as I am about it.”

“We shouldn’t be forced to let major chain stores determine what type of food we get, what chemicals are in them and at what cost.”

And teaching his son how to live a healthy lifestyle is at the root of all his gardening projects. With a new found passion for healthier, cleaner foods, Bunk is interested in bringing the Windowfarms technology into local schools to teach kids that their vegetables don’t need to come from a grocery store.

“I learned a lot about plants from my family, and over time, and the passion is rooted — no pun intended — in all of us, and it really should be,” said Bunk. “We shouldn’t be forced to let major chain stores determine what type of food we get, what chemicals are in them and at what cost.”

Bunk is currently perfecting his window farm at while growing types of exotic peppers that would be nearly impossible to grow in Wisconsin’s climate. He hopes the public display will become a talking point in the village, eventually getting more people interested in growing their own produce.

“I’m so surprised it takes people like window farmers to bring these types of issues to the forefront, and I’d love nothing more than to only recognized as a catalyst for that movement in this area.”

This story is part of an ongoing series of story on on trends in your community and elsewhere. You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing Amerian Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.

Sofia Reino April 05, 2012 at 04:27 PM
Oops... one more thing. Just noticed on one of the photos you are growing Pimientos de Padrón! I have yet to be lucky to grow them here in WI. Going to try it this year again!
Andy Ambrosius April 05, 2012 at 04:32 PM
I loved interviewing Erik. He was so smart about the project, and Britta's TEDTalk is very interesting. I wouldn't mind putting one of these things in a window at my place! haha
Erik (Farmer Brown) Bunk April 06, 2012 at 08:18 PM
Thank you so much for the interview, Andy! What an amazingly indepth spotlight on the concept of vertical/indoor gardening!! I am grateful for your efforts for this story, amid all the political happenings! I would be happy to help in the creation of a unique design for your home or office, or a special Patch edition should that be of interest. I look forward to updating you on the recent and very exciting development that will make it possible to feed, water and fully light gardens completely off the grid. A truly beneficial and renewable food source, that will not consume precious energy, will provide nutritiant rich herbs and vegetables, and fresh oxygen for our homes, for mere pennies in comparison to the average families anual produce costs! Thanks again!!
Jean Ambrosius April 09, 2012 at 04:49 AM
Nice article Andy. I can't wait to show your sister, who also has indoor gardens in her MN high school classroom. A great idea for everyone. Indoor gardening. Alyssa is going to a National conference in July to present her gardens to other teachers.
Laura Dailey June 27, 2012 at 12:40 AM
That is awesome Erik!

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