A grand opening is happening tomorrow at a suburban Chicago vertical farm that boasts several firsts. But, it’s the life changing job opportunities the farm is creating for ex-offenders and people in depressed neighborhoods that prompted us to see it for ourselves.
“I’ve always wanted to grow my own food. I never knew what went into it.” Max Gonzales found his calling in a 90-thousand square foot warehouse in Bedford Park, for a company called FarmedHere.” The building sat vacant for years, but is now the largest indoor aquaponic vertical farm in the United States. And the first vertical farm to receive USDA national organic certification. The 31 year old Gonzales worked for years in pet shops, learning about aquarium filtration systems and fish, information that’s served him well in the field of aquaponics, or growing plants in water, not soil. “Well, the tilapia fertilize our plants. Their primary job is eat, produce waste, the plants are able to soak it up. The plants clean the water for the fish and it comes back to the tanks. Budding urban farmer 20 year old Fernando Orozco prefers growing basil, arugula, and other microgreens, over handling fish. “Taking care of your plant is like taking care of your child. You give birth to the seed and make sure you water your plant, make sure you take care of it, you make sure it does great.” Gonzales and Orozco are products of Windy City Harvest, a nine month long- urban agriculture training program from the Chicago Botanic Garden- in partnership with City Colleges. Angela Mason is director of the program. “There’s a real need! As the local food economy grows you have to have individuals that are trained in urban agriculture to fill those positions and help grow that movement.” Jolanta Hardej saw the “buy local” movement coming too. The former interior designer and mortgage broker’s job world fell apart when the economy crashed in 2008. She read a book about vertical farming and saw its potential in Chicago. There’s an abundance of vacant property and land. People are moving back to the city. And it turns out you can fool Mother Nature. “Growing indoors in controlled environment, perfect humidity, perfect temperature. We hire local, we grow local, and we sell local.” FarmedHere needed skilled workers. Windy City Harvest needed jobs for its graduates. Anyone can enroll in the certificate program by paying the $2500 tuition. But class size is limited. And slots are reserved for the underemployed like Max, and the hard to employ ex-offenders like Fernando. “I really don’t know what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for this program so it’s definitely helped me out for job training.” Max is now a master grower for FarmedHere. “It’s helped me focus. It’s helped me think healthier, eat healthier, want to be healthier. 100% it’s changed my life.” Fernando and Max are two of eight full time employees from the Windy City Harvest Program. “You can’t help change communities and develop communities without having jobs,” says Director Mason. And FarmerHere’s CEO can’t wait to hire even more graduates. “Once the farm is fully occupied, we will have close to 200 employees. That’s a huge impact in the local job market.” Fernando is still a student but has a job at FarmedHere waiting for him. However, he has bigger drerams. “I would love to own my own farm, that would be great, grow my own stuff harvest my own stuff.” The boss says Max is now a mentor to everyone. “I’ve made a lot of really good friends which I never had before and I’m very grateful for that.” Max discovered that the tilapia respond to music- Portished and 80’s stuff like the Cure and Depeche Mode. Windy City Harvest will start taking applications for the next nine month certificate program in August. And if you’d like more information, please click these links.