Employing Marketing and Urban Farming Acumen, Upstart Aquaponics Farm Finds Footing in Windy City
June 2, 2016 | AJ Hughes
A commercial aquaponics operation that opened last October in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood is among the latest additions to a thriving urban agriculture tapestry in the Windy City.
Metropolitan Farms, operated by founder and CEO Benjamin Kant and his business partner, Eugene Shockey Funke, produces kale, lettuce, herbs and tilapia.
“I’ve always been interested in gardening and fish,” says Kant. “I saw aquaponics as a good way to urban farm.”
Kant’s interest in urban farming stems from his belief that growing produce to be sold locally in a city will result in increased access to healthier food, environmental and economic sustainability, and food security.
Kant, with roots in the finance sector, is not your run of the mill farmer. He began to lay the groundwork for an urban farming venture while taking an entrepreneurship class in 2012 as part of his MBA program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Over the next year, he continued to refine his business plan for the venture and eventually decided to take the plunge and launch Metropolitan Farms without the help of any outside investors.
“We’re truly a startup operation,” he says. “I used my finance knowledge, and then it was time to learn the farming part.”
So Kant and his co-founder Eugene Shockey Funke, who currently oversees the operation’s aquaponic system, learned to farm; and then secured land to build the greenhouse.
Following the successful setup of its greenhouse and aquaponic system, Metropolitan Farms shifted its focus to marketing.
Marketing is key, according to Kant. In the case of an aquaponics farm that depends on selling produce with a short shelf life, marketing efforts are necessary to maintain a healthy pipeline of customers. Metropolitan Farms has a lot to sell, as it’s on pace to produce 92,000 head of lettuce and 5,600 pounds of fish during its first year of operation.
“Marketing is make it or break it for urban farmers,” says Kant.
For Metropolitan Farms, Kant points to the operation’s close proximity to its customers many of whom are within biking distance. Building relationships with local businesses has bolstered the farm’s bottom line. The farm’s customers include supermarkets, farmers’ markets, restaurants and caterers, all of whom Kant makes a habit of visiting regularly.
Nine months in, Metropolitan Farms is covering costs, and Kant is pleased.
“We started in October of last year, and now we’re at breakeven,” he says. “That’s pretty darn good.”
Yet Kant’s foray into urban agriculture is far from over. By turning a profit, he hopes to show that his aquaponics venture is capable of not only providing locally-grown and healthy produce, but that it can also be a viable business.
“A profitable farm is proof of concept,” he says. “It can show that we can be profitable, giving people a reason to invest.”
While Kant is proud of the fact that no investors were needed for the launch of Metropolitan Farms, he’s now looking ahead.
“I would love to explore different opportunities, and possibly go on to build additional farms,” he says.
For now, Kant is happy to be part of a growing and evolving urban agriculture movement.
“There’s no existing business model for businesses like us,” he says. “We’re where computers were in the eighties. The future will feature new technology and new applications of old technology.”