It's May, which means Andrew Kaczkowski of Oak Park will be tilling the soil of his urban "Victory" garden and day-dreaming about all those fresh picks and eats he'll be harvesting come summer.
In 1991, as a new resident of Oak Park, Kaczkowski dug up his grass to create a 10 x 15-foot growing space, which has yielded plenty of tomatoes, peppers, beans, tomatillos & herbs — nothing for show, only the veggies they eat.
"It's kind of the fresh supermarket in the 100 block alley between North Taylor Avenue and Lombard," the former Beye PTO president quips. "I have always appreciated that kind of thing, cutting a tomato and then having it on the plate in a few minutes."
Kaczkowski, who grew up in Wisconsin, also harvests and uses storm water in rain barrels to irrigate his garden, like many other Oak Park gardeners.
With a rooted interest in the world of agrarian practices, it's not surprising that in the last couple of years he's been considering a mid-life career shift. In July, after researching the urban farming industry, Kaczkowski planted himself in a new job about as far from commodity futures broker as could be: indoor urban farming.
Instead of spending his days wheeling and dealing in the S&P pit and on the floor at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the 45-year-old has been breathing in more pure oxygen than he ever thought possible as the new executive manager of Urban Till Corp.
The burgeoning business uses hydroponics to cultivate, harvest and sell tens of thousands of pristine herbs, micro-greens and lettuces, 24-hour fresh, to a swelling roster of high-end restaurants in the Chicago area.
Describing himself as "a math geek, not a farmer," founder Brock Leach, 36, says he created his new urban farm based on a mathematical model, noting with a laugh that his college degree is actually in qualitative logic, not agricultural science.
But he's blooming where he's planted — in a 30,000-square-foot, re-purposed warehouse in the old Sunbeam plant just off Roosevelt Road, justy south across the expressway from Austin, a "food desert" on the West Side of Chicago.
Kaczkowski's new work week now entails donning "green jeans" to work with Leach and a band of "urban farm staffers" hired to engage in ongoing research and development, as well as all those farm chores that result in delivering 24-hour fresh herbs, micro-greens and lettuces to places from Aquitaine to Atwood Café, Bow & Stern and Boka, Autre Monde Café in Berwyn and Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park.
His kids — 17, 13 and 8 — all volunteer at the farm when he needs a few "extra hands."
"I actually pay my boys out of pocket for their time," Dad says.
On a recent walking tour of the facility, Farm Manager Matthew Kane told a chic crowd of about 100 chefs and foodies their aim: The herb production area (eventually 3,000 tubes, up and hanging, resembling the game "Marble Maze" on steroids) will handle about 45,000 plants, producing about 1,600 pounds of herbs a week.
The micro-green area (seven plant tables holding 57 trays each with 17 different varieties of micro-greens, cultivated under 1,000-watt "grow" lights) is popular with chefs. They are harvested at varying levels of maturity according to their customers' wants, whims and needs.
Over at the in-progress lettuce area, the "nursery" currently has 14 varieties growing in a three-tier, stacked hydroponic system, with even more varieties in Research & Development now.
"As you guys were walking past these tanks and pumps, the brain child of it all," Kane said, "is what we call the 'flux capacitor' — Back to the Future, you know. I like to call it the heart of the operation."
Growing the business
Brock Leach masterminded the concept in 2011. At the time he was interested in making a career shift from doing food distribution for McDonald's to a couple of stages earlier in the food chain.
Prior to selling anything to anybody, Leach spent 18 months figuring out how to sustainably grow produce using hydroponic technologies.
"After that, it was like, let's go build this urban farm, and now 2½ years later, welcome to it," he told attendees of Field Trip Cocktails' "Horticulture 101" event at Urban Till on the first day of Spring. "If we can make urban farming cost-feasible, it solves almost all of these problems and produces something better."
But their long-term goal, he adds, is also to do a lot of good.
"What I am saying is that unless you have a business model that is self-sustainable, you are not going to be able to make it scalable to the point of actually impacting the world," says the forward-thinking entrepreneur. "It's 30,000 square feet that is allowing us to grow rapidly, and we are exceeding sales. Every week is a new high sales week for us."
Peeking, poking and pouring out of those hydroponic herb-growing tubes is everything from a collection of common cottage herbs to red-veined sorrel and watercress, plus green and red shiso, arugula and red Russian kale.
"Look at all this green," says Oak Parker Melissa Elsmo, a food columnist for the Sun-Times. "They are growing things here in the winter months in healthy, environmentally friendly ways and it is just around the corner from Oak Park. I am a trained chef who has the great pleasure of using Urban Till's ingredients in my creations, and I will say that the herbs — and especially the micro-greens they are peddling out of this amazing warehouse — have absolutely changed the way I cook and has altered the flavors, bringing a new level of curiosity to a dish."
Bartender Sam Troelstrup, a former Oak Parker and "ground-floor investor," says he is just blown away by the operation every time he pops his head in for a look-see.
"Bountiful. Beautiful. And just smell the air," he says. "It's wonderful. Just walking through it is energizing. It is very clean oxygen we are breathing in here."
At the micro-green station during the multi-hour tour, "farmer" Jill Hir, senior sales associate at Urban Till, began name-dropping.
"Chef Anthony Martin of TRU actually came in to build his spring menu by literally walking around saying, I like that … I like that … and I like that," she says. "Chef Ed Kim at Mott Street uses our Chervil Forest (micro-green) in his creations."
Chef Jill Barron at Mana Food Bar is delivered watercress, she adds, and they started growing hyssop flowers for Chef Curtis Duffy at Grace after he discovered that the normal protocol when herbs bolted was to snip off the bloom to encourage continued growth of the plant.
When it got around they had edible flowers for sale, "the chefs went crazy for them, so we started growing herbs for their flowers, too," Hir says.
Midway through the inaugural eat-drink-and-learn excursion, which started at a trendy bar and utilized a bus to transport the guests to Urban Till, Kaczkowski was leaning against a wall, talking about how he grew up gardening with his folks. One of the perks of working at an indoor farm, he says is now he has a ready source for basil.
"I really wanted to see if you could, or not, make money doing [urban farming] because you can't really save the world until you have made enough money to make a sustainable model," he adds. "I had the commodities background, so that really kind of spurred me. What we are doing here right now is proving the model of the indoor urban side of things.
"We are going to revolutionize food supply … you'll see."