Sustainable Ag Startup
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.”
People become farmers for many different reasons—family tradition, a love of the land, a desire to make a difference, and so on. But for Indiana-based This Old Farm co-founder Jessica Smith, motherhood was the main motivator.
“I started looking at agriculture from the standpoint of having children and wanting to feed them well,” says Smith. “Our kids motivate us and that’s really the motivation for looking at agriculture.”
Jessica and her husband Erick started This Old Farm in 2000 because they wanted to bring healthy food to their family and other local families as well. The operation began as an 88-acre row crop farm that they gradually converted to pasture. They have focused primarily on livestock, raising Katahdin lamb, pastured pork, and pastured poultry. They are, however, looking to increase their produce production, and have 10 acres of lettuce going out this year.
Dan Horan had a notion back in 1989 that started with a college essay and turned into a business plan: enlist the cooperative efforts of various small farms in the region to supply supermarkets with locally produced foods. The idea of bringing the farmers’ market to the local supermarket was planted, he says.
“Fast-forward to 2010,” says Horan. “I sold the company I was involved with and hired my first employee.”
The name for Horan’s new venture, Five Acre Farms, came from the principle of small, local agriculture serving its local communities, according to Horan.
“Our focus was on the mainstream customer,” says Horan, “improving their access to local food where most of the shopping is happening—in the supermarkets. Less than 10 percent of people can support the farmers’ market. We wanted to be in the mainstream shopping centers.”
With each passing year, 100 million acres of corn are sown in the United States. As these acres are fertilized, an estimated 50 percent of the nitrogen applied is wasted due to runoff and other factors, so that half of the hefty sum spent annually by corn farmers to feed their fields might as well be poured down a drain or tossed to the wind.
The enormous scale and consequence of this waste is what motivated a team of three very bright brothers with expertise in environmental science, dairy farming and robotics to devise a solution called “Rowbot.”
Mitch Hagney is Chief Executive Officer of LocalSprout, a hydroponic farm based in San Antonio, Texas.
When a hydroponic farm grows a head of lettuce, the story doesn’t start with a seed.
Every part of the environment has to be provided for the seeds before they germinate, including everything that nature usually gives away for free.
To make a plant’s conditions ideal, the farmer must also be a plumber, an electrician, an engineer, and a chemist. Even those growers with lots of experience often lack the construction expertise that building a hydroponic farm requires, so they turn to those whose sole business is building.
With almost a decade’s worth of aquarium design, filtering technique and fish tank science under their belts, Eric Suen and Kevin Liang, co-founders of Aqua Design Innovations, feel confident they have the experience, knowledge and vision to offer a sustainable aquarium that utilizes aquaponic growing techniques at an affordable price.
Their product, the EcoQube, is a desktop-size, self-regulating aquaponic ecosystem complete with plants, fish, and lighting. The pair launched a Kickstarter campaign on Nov. 30, 2013, hoping to raise $39,000 by Jan. 12, 2014. If funded, the money will enable the company to start production.
In 2011, playwright, theater director and technology consultant Erika Block started the company Local Orbit with the goal of facilitating more efficient local food networks. By providing sustainable food producers with sales and business management tools, Block hoped the company could help address some of the inefficient infrastructure issues in our modern-day food system.
Over the past two years, Block has watched her vision for the company gradually transform into reality.
“Our team has doubled,” says Block. “We’ve tripled the number of markets on our platform. We currently support local marketplaces and trading networks in nine states, with over 500 food producers and 2000 buyers using the platform.”
It all started with a Facebook post.
Nick Papadopoulos was working as acting general manager of Bloomfield Farms, his wife’s parents’ 45-acre organic vegetable farm located in Northern California. One day, he found himself alone in the cooler after a farmer’s market, sipping on a beer and observing all of the unsold food that would soon become part of the farm’s chicken feed and compost bins.
Suddenly, he had an idea. Instead of giving premium organic produce to the chickens, why not give it to hungry people? So, he went online to Facebook and started typing. The original Facebook post offering leftover produce that started the cropsourcing website known as CropMobster can still be seen on the site today.