Outside a quiet unassuming warehouse at the southwest corner of Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, hundreds of thousands of travelers pass by every day on the adjacent Eisenhower Expressway.
For all the passersby knows the hulking structure is a factory for some obscure car part or a storage facility for unused tradeshow kiosks.
But within the nondescript walls of the multistory facility an urban farm has taken root. Its owners are fine-tuning a proprietary hydroponic method to grow thousands of high-end micro greens and other vegetables to be sold at some of the top restaurants in the Chicago area, including Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park and Autre Monde Café & Spirits in Berwyn.
The owners of Urban Till, which operates the 30,000-square-foot urban farm, opened their doors to a select group of about 100 restaurateurs, chefs, sustainable food advocates and industry insiders for the first time on March 21. The facility gives them a glimpse into what the budding entrepreneurs say is the future of farming.
Participants met at a bar in Chicago’s West Loop and were bused out to the location, which Urban Till’s owners want to remain secret for now. They were treated with gourmet delicacies and high-end cocktails using the farm’s myriad variety of greens and herbs.
“Welcome to the Jungle” by ’80s rock band Guns N’ Roses blared on overhead speakers as participants entered the facility and were handed a sweet cocktail known as a Cherry Chili Fizz, garnished with balsam grown at the farm.
“We’re cutting fresh every day, hand-sorting every little last bite and delivering it to kitchens throughout Chicago that very same day. This gives chefs the ability to offer produce that is otherwise simply unavailable,” Urban Till founder Brock Leach told the group during a high-energy presentation, reminiscent of a private company about to go public on Wall Street.
Though the facility is free of any soil and sheltered from natural sunlight, the urban farmers themselves wear cowboy boots, plaid farmer’s shirts and cowboy hats in some cases.
Farmer Jill Hir told participants during the tour that the business started with four herbs — cilantro, dill, arugula and basil — in 2012 and has since grown to more than 50 varieties of herbs and lettuces. And, she added, there are 50 more being researched.
“We actually let the chefs choose the final product,” Hir said. “(Varieties) we wouldn’t have thought of, the chef says, ‘Hey, we’d like to have this.'”
She said the farm has more than 40,000 plants on any given day.
Participants were toured throughout the warehouse farm. They were given a lesson on the value of hydroponic farming and a brief description of how the A-frame drip systems operate.
Farmer Matt Kane said that at the beginning of the growing process, 500 gallons of water are pumped through the system per minute, a level that is gradually reduced to about five gallons an hour.
Asked if he thought the method represents the future of farming, Kane said: “I hope so. It makes sense. You’re taking an old building like this and putting it to use.”
Lynn Fosbender, a participant of the tour who earned a degree in horticulture from the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana, said she found out about the event because she knows a chef who was on the list.
“In my business we work with local flower farmers as much as possible, so this idea of urban agriculture is really interesting,” said Fosbender, who owns a flower shop in Chicago. “We try to be as eco-friendly as possible, so it’s a combination of things like the transportation and using fewer fossil fuels by working with local growers.”
Oak Park resident Marilyn Dawson, who does branding and interactive strategy for sustainable food groups, said she found out about the tour from a chef who operates an underground dinner club in Oak Park and buys from Urban Till.
“The thing that’s really striking me tonight is they are operating at a very high level and very catered to an urban audience and a very sophisticated audience,” she said, noting the “huge diversity” of the business’s offerings.
“Everything we had tonight from the food and the drinks was incredibly rich in flavor,” Dawson said.
Leach, 36, developed the concept for Urban Till in 2011. He was working at the time with Martin-Brower Co., which provides logistics services for restaurant chains and distributes over 50 percent of the food for McDonald’s restaurants worldwide.
As a “continuous improvement manager” Leach was tasked with making food supply distribution more efficient.
“That’s why I did Urban Till,” he said. “I was working with the food supply chain and seeing it break right in front of me. I was seeing all the inefficiencies. If we can make urban farming cost feasible, it solves almost all of these problems and produces something better.”
Leach said he aims to expand the business but was reluctant to give much detail on his business model. But, he added, the goal of urban farming is to “reduce the carbon footprint and supply a more nutritious and better-tasting product.”
“This is the beginning of Urban Till revolutionizing the food supply chain,” he said.