What comes to mind when you hear the word “farm”? Wide open spaces? Dirt roads?
A polycarbonate greenhouse surrounded by an 8-foot-tall barbed-wire fence, a blue privacy screen, abandoned factories and city traffic?
Metropolitan Farms, located in the heart of Chicago’s manufacturing district, is not a typical farm. But Benjamin Kant, founder and chief executive officer, says his aquaponics business produces food just like any other farm. The difference? Kant uses six fish tanks, four plant beds and 22,000 gallons of water in a 10,500-square-foot controlled environment to produce 500 pounds of fresh herbs and greens weekly on a once-vacant parking lot.
Urban farming is not new to Chicago, says Zachary Grant, University of Illinois Extension educator. The Chicago Victory Gardens program played a critical role in food production during World War II. In the early 2000s, Grant says urban agriculture began moving to high tunnels, rooftops and vacant lots as the local food movement gained traction.
There are two sides to urban farming, he adds — social and entrepreneurial.
Socially based urban farms, like the Chicago Botanical Garden’s Windy City Harvest initiative, help with job training, reduce food insecurity and support low-income communities. Windy City Harvest offers a nine-month course in urban agriculture, where Jen Rosenthal, owner of Planted Chicago, began her second career.
Entrepreneurs like Kant and Rosenthal have found ways to run unique and profitable urban farming businesses.
Kant grew up in the northern suburbs and remembers working in his family’s garden. “I’ve always had a green thumb, but my background is by no means agriculture,” he says. “On the other hand, I have a passion for fish and plants.”
In 2008, Kant struggled to find a place in the finance world and returned to school for an entrepreneurship course. He worked at a restaurant while attending school, and discovered the importance of inventory and how perishable produce impacted the restaurant’s profitability.
“At the same time, the local food movement was gearing up, and people were looking for the story behind the food on their plate,” he explains. “All of these ideas coalesced into Metro Farms and commercial aquaponics.”
Kant started with a business plan that earned recognition in the City of Chicago’s Business Plan Competition. “That gave me the validation I needed,” he says. The next challenge? Learning how to build and manage an aquaponics farm. Kant researched aquaponics, visited different farms and called a high school friend, Shockey Funk, to help with engineering and building the facility. Family and friends supported Kant’s vision and provided the necessary capital — nearly $1 million.
It took Kant and Funk three years to obtain zoning and business permits, build the facility and begin production.
Kant faces the same challenges all farmers have, like machinery breakdowns, crop diseases and marketing, which is how he spends the majority of his time. Predictability, with a standard weekly harvest volume that’s not weather-dependent, is Kant’s key marketing advantage.
But urban farming isn’t easy. When issues or zoning challenges arise, Kant doesn’t have a support system, like Farm Bureau or commodity associations, to lean on. “There’s no industry to draw on for experience or support,” he says. “It’s a pretty lonely place to be.”
The Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project tracks about 900 different growing sites around Chicago, but they are all a little different: aquaponics, hydroponics, greenhouses and commercial gardens. “We have a loose community of groups, but we’re different in as many ways as we’re the same,” Kant says.
PASSION FOR PLANTING: Gardening evolved from a hobby to a full-time career for Jen Rosenthal, owner and operator of Planted Chicago. “This is really something I found and connected to later in life,” she says.
Rosenthal, Planted Chicago, brings fresh greens and herbs to top Chicago restaurants through what she calls “hyper-local” growing.
“It was a tomato that started this whole thing,” Rosenthal explains. A potted tomato plant that grew on her small deck in Chicago ignited a lifelong passion. Rosenthal was on a path to become an animation artist until four years of doing the exact same thing made her realize it may not be her calling.
Her calling was growing on her deck — that little plant brought her joy. But could growing food in pots be a full-time job?
Fate intervened when Rosenthal attended a wedding at Uncommon Ground, a Chicago restaurant with a rooftop garden. She set a goal to work at Uncommon Ground and applied for Windy City Harvest’s apprenticeship program. After graduating, she worked at the Chicago Botanical Gardens Fruit and Vegetable Garden and Lincoln Park Zoo’s Edible Garden until she achieved her goal.
Rosenthal managed Uncommon Ground’s gardens for three years before starting her own business: Planted Chicago. Today, she works with restaurants to design, install and manage rooftop gardens, grow rooms or planter boxes, creating “hyper-local” food plots. She manages an on-site grow room and outdoor garden at Lula Café and an outdoor garden at Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Logan Square. The winter grow room caters to the chef’s finishing touches, like mustard, fennel, dill and lemon basil.
From April until November, Rosenthal grows tomatoes, carrots, peppers, radishes, squash, peas, greens and more on a quarter-acre farm in south Chicago that she rents from the Windy City Harvest program. She delivers same-day picked produce to her FolkArt Restaurant customers, including Billy Sunday and Old Irving Brewing.
Her biggest challenge is finding suitable land. Sound familiar? She’s not guaranteed a lease through Windy City Harvest, and even though there are plenty of vacant lots in Chicago, it would take a significant investment to create usable raised beds, plus there are zoning and water-source issues.
For 2018, Rosenthal is reapplying for space at Windy City Harvest while searching for a more permanent option. Finding land beyond Chicago and its many suburbs would take away from her customer face time, a service she is not willing to sacrifice. “My business is super hyper-local and customized,” she explains. “So much of my business is based on my relationships.”
How exactly does Metro Farms produce food from an old parking lot? What does “hyper-local” growing look like? Check back next week for more on aquaponics and urban farming.