EAST GARFIELD PARK — A garden grows in East Garfield Park.
This one, inside an old car repair shop on a short block that dead-ends at railroad tracks, contains no soil. It is a hydroponics farm, a sterile-looking system in which plant roots grow in nutrient-enriched water, but it is lush nonetheless.
Delicate baby greens and herbs — amaranth, basil, kohlrabi, collards, fenugreek, mizuna, pea shoots and more — stand cluster after cluster, row upon row. In as quickly as a week or two, they'll end up in the kitchen at Coppervine, Knife & Tine and Inspiration Kitchens.
Garfield Produce, Chicago's newest hydroponics farm, is the brainchild of industrial engineer Steve Lu, 31, of Wicker Park and a retired northwest suburban couple, Mark and Judy Thomas, a former newspaper executive and corporate lawyer, respectively.
"We never anticipated being farmers," said Judy Thomas, 62.
Nor did they anticipate meeting last year in a right-place, right-time sort of way and starting Garfield Produce with a shared vision to grow top-notch produce, turn a profit and create jobs and wealth in this impoverished community.
Licensed in November, it's the fourth such urban farm/aquaponics center in the city, according to the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. Their partner in the venture is Breakthrough, a nonprofit that runs transitional housing and youth development programs in East Garfield Park.
"Everybody that you talk to in this neighborhood knows we need jobs. That is the big cry," said Arloa Sutter, executive director of Breakthrough.
Breakthrough provides job training to the formerly homeless and Garfield Produce, as it grows, will hire them. A few weeks ago, one of those residents, an ex-convict named Larry Hairl, became Garfield Produce's first hire. Lu said he expects to hire between six and eight employees for this site.
"Social enterprise is a lot easier to talk about than do," said Mark Thomas, 62. "To try and meld the two together is what we're all about."
A few years ago, Lu was on pace to a promising if predictable corporate career: work, get MBA, keep moving up.
"I was basically going through the motions of what engineers typically do," said Lu, who worked full-time at Weber-Stephen Products while attending business school at DePaul.
Then came a school project to develop a business plan which stopped him in his tracks or, he might say, set him on the right one.
The assignment led Lu to explore hydroponic farming, which he had first learned about from an Iraq veteran turned farmer in Southern California he'd heard speak at a Chicago Ideas Week conference.
"He brings buddies back from combat and uses farming as a way to rehabilitate them," Lu said. "It triggered for me what else can farming do, this whole notion that you have to first feed the body, and then you feed the soul."
Lu went on to create DePaul's first hydroponics lab. He researched lighting methods and crops that made sense for hydroponics — not strawberries as he'd first thought, but greens. He interned at The Plant, home to Greens and Gills, an aquaponics farm.
"The numbers started adding up. I was like, 'This is a legitimate business model.' It kept eating away at me," he said.
Lu quit his job at Weber in 2012 to finish his MBA and start building his business. What he calls a "serendipitous" meeting in Sutter's office at Breakthrough came in April 2013.
The Thomases were longtime donors and volunteers at Breakthrough and had talked to Sutter about wanting to start a business that wasn't just well-intentioned but financially viable, one that could transform a vacant building or lot, of which East Garfield Park had many.
A mutual acquaintance, meanwhile, told Sutter she needed to meet Lu. So she brought them all together.
Sutter said she had been skeptical that urban farming could be an economic empowerment tool because of Chicago's short growing season. That changed "as soon as we met Steve and I saw his business plan and realized he was already doing this at DePaul and knows how to do this," Sutter said.
Lu and the Thomases launched with a loan from Breakthrough and the Thomases' own money. They signed a lease on the building in March. Volunteers from Breakthrough and friends helped them clean out the building.
The farm is a half-block away from Breakthrough's men's shelter and a few more blocks from its main buildings. A portion of the greens goes to Breakthrough's recently expanded food pantry, which operates much like a regular grocery store.
"One of the biggest hindrances for people who don't know the neighborhood is to automatically assume there's all this crime going on. But behind all that are real, genuine assets, like the people themselves," Lu said.
On a recent morning, Lu eagerly plucked leaves here and there for a visitor to sample.
"Guess what this is," he said, handing over feathery tendrils of micro carrots. There was no mistaking the shockingly intense carrot flavor.
Touching a clump of magenta spreen, Lu said with a laugh, "I don't even know what this is."
More chefs are finding out about Garfield Produce. Chip Barnes, the chef of Coppervine in Lincoln Park, uses a variety of Lu's greens, including red amaranth, Persian cress and Russian kale.
Barnes said the company's mission jells with his own to support the community, but ultimately for him, it comes down to taste.
"Their greens are some of the best, most flavorful greens I can find," Barnes said.
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