The Urban Farm: Sustainable Indoor Farming Provides Local Greens in Winter and Hope for the Future

By Susan Lee Hahn

Farm1FarmedHere has understandable bragging rights. They’re the first vertical farm in Chicago, the only USDA Organic Certified aquaponic indoor operation in the U.S., the world’s largest aquaponics system and a recent winner in the Chicago Innovation Awards in the up-and-comer category for startups. Not bad for a company that’s only a year old.

If you live in Chicago and dine out even occasionally, chances are you’ve tasted their produce. It makes sense for Chicago-area restaurants and grocery stores to use and carry their products, especially considering the fact that a head of lettuce can travel over 1,200 miles from a distant farm to your table. FarmedHere produce most likely travels a shorter distance than the average Chicagoan travels to work each day.

magazineFarmedHere is located in Bedford Park, just outside the city in a converted warehouse, which they’ve “recycled and repurposed” into a vertical farm. The facility has an enigmatic glow that’s clean and green. Like bunk beds at summer camp, their plants thrive in vertically stacked grow beds so not an inch of space is wasted. Water isn’t wasted either. Nor soil.

The plants are grown in nutrient-rich water instead of soil, made possible by the tilapia, a key component in their closed-loop, aquaponic system. Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (raising plants with nutrient-rich water) in conjunction. Their sophisticated system involves mechanically controlling air temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure as the water that’s filled with fish waste then fertilizes the plants. The water is then cleaned, filtered and recirculated back to the tilapia tanks.

They also utilize aeroponics, which is an innovative way to hydroponically grow plants by using a nutrient-rich mist on their roots, decreasing fresh water consumption. This efficient, sustainable system allows their crops to reach maturity in a very short time.

The results? FarmedHere produces some of the tastiest, most nutritious and greatest variety of greens available—all chemical- and pesticide-free. That’s no easy feat in the middle of a Chicago “arctic-freeze” winter.

“Ninety-two percent of the food we eat in Illinois comes from somewhere else,” said Vice President of Development and co-founder, Paul Hardej. “That’s very sad.” They’re on a mission to change the way food is grown, harvested and distributed.

In addition to pioneering sustainable solutions for urban agriculture, they’ve also got a hard and fast environmental policy that strives for a zero-carbon footprint. They package and deliver their own produce. Their proprietary green paper packaging uses 90% less plastic than most of the produce found in supermarkets and their labels use only soy-based inks from certified green printers. They’re not kidding around about sustainability.

Always forward-thinking, CEO and co-founder, Jolanta Hardej has her sights set on creating outreach programs that will teach and enlighten children of all ages about the process and importance of urban gardening.

“Everything starts with kids,” she said. “If you can teach kids to eat properly, you’re paving the way for healthier adults and a healthier country. Kids also play a significant role in what parents buy.”

FarmedHere hires locally and about half their team members come from Windy City Harvest, a non-profit organization that provides instruction in urban agriculture for young adults in Chicago, many of whom are from at-risk neighborhoods.

“The sky’s the limit,” said Paul Hardej. “We’re just starting.”

Susan Lee Hahn is a freelance writer and photographer, and is currently the Managing Director of the first annual Chicago Charity Challenge.

Photos courtesy Beat Studios

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