During the historic August floods, Kohlie Frantzen was photographing empty produce bins in Lafayette grocery stores. The torrential rains that inundated South Louisiana from Lake Arthur to Hammond had disrupted the region’s food distribution system.
The region’s major produce distributor in Baton Rouge was flooded by the more than 7 billion gallons of rain that fell the weekend of Aug. 14. Franzten says that the “back up” food distribution network for our region (in this case, Michigan) was also hit by storms the same weekend.
“I’d been working for a few years with returning combat veterans who kept telling me that food is security,” Frantzen says. “That flood and those empty produce bins drove home the point as to just how fragile our security is here.”
A Lafayette native who worked as an assistant district attorney in Jefferson Parish before returning home after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Frantzen is in partnership with former NBC cable reporter Dylan Ratigan in Helical Holdings, which has created Outposts — marketed as “plug and play, solar-powered, hydroponic greenhouses that purify water.” The Outposts are shipped in a container ready to be assembled.
“Our idea was that these could be deployed in remote Third World locations,” says Frantzen, who serves as Helical’s managing partner and general counsel. “But the flood showed that Outposts have applications here in the First World.”
The Helical Outposts produce their own power using solar panels that arrive in the container to be attached to the exterior roof. A 1,440-square-foot greenhouse is also in the container as are the piping, trays, water and electrical lines needed to turn the operation into a farm. There is also a satellite link for communications.
Frantzen, son of the late Dan Frantzen, a co-founder of Stone Energy, says the plug and play elements in the Outposts come from the oil and gas industry.
Helical Outposts are set up in Virginia (operated by a group called Patriotic Farmers of America) and in Lafayette on the campus of John Paul the Great Academy off Carmel Drive.
The Outpost at John Paul the Great produces 26 crop cycles a year with seedlings starting in trays and being moved along a series of rows of larger trays until reaching maturity. Some of the produce is currently sold to Lafayette restaurants.
Frantzen, though, sees an array of community-based Outposts improving the quality of diets in food deserts — those places not served by full-service grocery stores.
“During the flood, we never lost power, we never lost communications and we never stopped producing food,” Frantzen boasts. “After the flood, I began thinking about a network of Outposts across the region producing food for neighborhoods, restaurants and retail outlets.”
The empty produce bins focused Frantzen’s attention on another value proposition for the Outposts: building a more resilient Lafayette.
At a meeting to discuss the revitalization of Four Corners (the intersection of Cameron Street and University Avenue), Frantzen ran into Zack McMath. McMath, under his McMath Food Group LLC, has been developing a food hub for Lafayette to provide access to food preparation and packaging tools, as well as storage facilities that the region’s organic farmers could use to move their products beyond the farmer’s market stage.
In the process of developing his concept and bringing it to reality, McMath says he learned that he faces a shortage of certified farmers — those who use what are officially known as Good Agricultural Practices in the operation of their farms and in moving their food to market.
“What Kohlie and I quickly learned is that we need each other,” McMath says. “His Outposts bring a level of standardization to the operations, which simplifies the certification process [and] brings down the cost. There is one person in the state charged with reviewing farm operations and granting GAP certificates. It can be a time-consuming process because farms are all different and the farmer is on the hook for the bill for the certification.”
McMath sees Frantzen’s push for a network of Outposts as feeding his aggregation, distribution and fulfillment services at Acadiana Food Hub. The buildout of the food hub, located on North University just north of the I-10 gas station cluster, is targeted for completion in January.
Frantzen has landed a deal with River Ranch developer Robert Daigle to deploy a modified Outpost there. Solar panels are barred in River Ranch so the greenhouse will be connected to the LUS grid and the shipping crate will have to be modified to fit the development’s aesthetics. In late November, The IND tagged along as the River Ranch Homeowners Association’s board members toured the existing facility on Carmel Drive.
Ironically, Frantzen approached Daigle after pitching the idea of putting an Outpost at Four Corners. “One gentlemen said to me, ‘If it’s so great, why isn’t there one at River Ranch,’” Frantzen recalls. “It looks like there soon will be.”