TechSpark supporting unique job creation nonprofit

A Wisconsin nonprofit that provides job training in a unique setting is getting support from TechSpark Wisconsin, an effort from Microsoft to support economic development and job creation.

Riverview Gardens is a “no-fail” job training program in Appleton, located on 72 acres along the Fox River that used to a country club and golf course. It’s meant to provide options to those living in poverty, including some recently out of prison.

About 25 acres of the site are used for organic farming, with beets, potatoes, carrots, herbs, tomatoes, onions and kale. It also has 20 solar gardens, and a hydroponic greenhouse. Hydroponically grown plants don’t need soil; instead, they’re grown with mineral-rich water.

The greenhouse provides an alternative place for veterans who may have post-traumatic stress disorder, which is less hectic and loud than the larger farm.

“If you look at what Riverview does as an organization, they’re building dignity through job training and employment,” said Michelle Schuler, manager of TechSpark Wisconsin. She says Microsoft’s involvement is all about “how we help them focus the vision.”

TechSpark was announced in October 2017, and northeast Wisconsin was chosen as one of six regions around the country where the initiative would focus its efforts.

Schuler says when TechSpark was first looking at the Midwest, its first program was TEALS, or Tech Education and Literacy in Schools, which focused on 10 schools in an introductory period.

“The collaboration with the community here was so strong, Microsoft decided to bring in TechSpark,” she says.

Riverview Gardens is getting support from the initiative in three main ways. On a basic level, Microsoft is helping Riverview Gardens go digital by transferring data on things like seed distribution, crop growing and more from paper to online records.  

It’s also providing technology for the hydroponics area for monitoring and adjusting water temperature, pH balance and nutrient levels. Schuler says that and more is now done through a mobile app, which leads to time savings and improved efficiency.

Finally, Microsoft is also implementing FarmBeats, a program linking a handful of technologies t to improve irrigation management. These include artificial intelligence, ground-based sensors, drones and business analytics software.

Schuler declined to provide dollar figures for TechSpark’s support of Riverview Gardens.

Microsoft claims the hydroponic garden and FarmBeats programs will provide more consistent harvests and increase farm yields for Riverview Gardens, but Schuler says it will take some time before that’s proven.

She says much of the technology is being implemented for the first time this season, so it will take at least several more seasons before they can provide figures.

TechSpark is also supporting other organizations in the state, including, Boys and Girls Club and 4H. And it continues to support TEALS. Microsoft is also partnering with the Green Bay Packers on digital improvement efforts through the TitletownTech partnership.

–By Alex Moe