America’s Largest Vertical Farm Will Describe Successful $1.7 Million Capital Raise and Launch
- written by Bob Benenson
When FarmedHere was founded, its indoor vertical produce farm was located in a tiny 4,000-square foot building in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Co-Founders Jolanta Hardej, Steve Denenberg and Paul Suder, and vice president of development, Paul Hardej, delivered their basil and arugula to retail merchants in Ziploc bags.
Now, just about three years later — enhanced in part by strategic support from FamilyFarmed.org and the Good Food Financing Conference — FarmedHere is set for the grand opening of a 90,000-square foot facility in the industrial Chicago southwest suburb of Bedford Park. It will be the largest vertical farm in America.
That space will ultimately be filled with 20 five-tiered systems, lit by energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs, in which organic herbs and greens are being grown hydroponically (with their roots immersed in water) or aeroponically (with nutrients sprayed on the roots). The nutrients are produced, in part, by an aquaponic system in which food fish such as tilapia are raised while their wastes, full of nitrogen, are filtered, processed and siphoned off to the produce racks. FarmedHere’s closed-loop growing systems save at least 97 percent of fresh water in comparison to traditional farms.
FamilyFarmed.org introduced the company to Whole Foods Market, which eventually became their largest customer. “FarmedHere was a logical vendor for Whole Foods,” says Jim Slama, the founder and president of FamilyFarmed.org, who originally connected the grower with the nation’s largest organic and natural supermarket chain. “Their product is organic, high-quality and beautifully packaged, which is just what Whole Foods is looking for in their local program.”
FarmedHere was able to grow so quickly, from tenuous experiment to pioneering mass-production vertical farm, because its innovative entrepreneurship attracted the attentions of investors and lenders. FamilyFarmed.org helped the company make the necessary connections at last year’s Good Food Financing Conference to eventually close a $1 million round of private financing, plus additional loans of $700,000.
FarmedHere’s capital-raising efforts will be discussed at the Good Food Festival and Conference’s Financing Conference at University of Illinois Chicago on Thursday, March 14. Paul Hardej will deliver the keynote address at 1:00 p.m. He will be followed by a panel that includes John Hall, founder of Chicago’s legendary Goose Island Brewery, who was FarmedHere’s lead investor. The panel also includes Erin Guyer, who runs Whole Foods Market’s Local Producer Loan Program — which provided a $100,000 loan that was crucial to FarmedHere’s expansion. Terry Hinds of 1st Farm Credit will also be on the panel and discuss how Farm Credit came to make a $600,000 loan.
FarmedHere eventually found a home in the pro-business and very progressive Village of Bedford Park, near Midway Airport. Bedford Park Village President David R. Brady and the village trustees expedited necessary zoning and code changes to allow urban agriculture in its most advanced form. “From the beginning, working with the Village of Bedford Park felt like a real partnership, where both sides want to do what’s best for the community,” says Paul Hardej.
With this financing in hand, FarmedHere and its team were able to lease and start building out their new facility in Bedford Park. FarmedHere’s stylish house-shaped brown packaging was designed by Hardej, an architect by trade. FarmedHere distinguishes itself from its competitors with both a great look and ultra-fresh greens and herbs that were picked the day before they arrive at the store. And according to Jolanta Hardej, if all goes well, FarmedHere could by itself supply 6 to 8 percent of Chicago’s premium greens and culinary herbs within a few years.
“Suddenly, everything is big,” Jolanta says. “Everything is new, just because nothing was ever created on this scale.”
And the Hardejs are thinking even bigger. “Once it’s 100 percent proven that this model works, which we know that it will, we want to repeat it very quickly. I’m sure there will be others; we’ll have competition. Which is great and healthy for the local economies,” Jolanta says.
♦ ♦ ♦
Bob Benenson is a journalist specializing in food and drink, with a focus on sustainability. Prior to relocating to Chicago in 2011, he covered elections and other things political at Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C., for 30 years. An avid home cook and fan of farmers’ markets and craft beverage makers, Bob lives with his wife Barb and cat Gracie in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.
♦ ♦ ♦