South suburban hydroponic farm proprietor seeks to democratize the meals system and alter the narrative within the Ford Heights neighborhood


Suburban Hydroponic Farm | By Darcel Rockett |

If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, Derek Drake would have by no means found his objective. Furloughed from his job at Northwestern College in 2020, he requested himself: “What’s the best subsequent transfer?”

That transfer was taking his 25-year working expertise in hospitality and eating places and beginning farming enterprise.

That motto is ever current on a small dry erase board on the inside wall of a 320-square-foot suburban hydroponic farm in a trailer container in Mokena. The farm sits in view of a picturesque lake with catfish and bluegill, and in between Drake’s residence and the hen coop that homes weeks-old birds named after characters from the “Golden Women” TV collection and Disney chipmunk characters, Chip and Dale.

“I by no means in 1,000,000 years thought I’d be a farmer,” stated the daddy of 4. “As I obtained older and began working in hospitality and dealing in eating places, I believed that will be my route — eating places or being a restaurateur. However when I discovered this, this was it. I all the time consider the universe all the time spins in your course. You simply must be ready when it does.”

“The issue is funding. Individuals who have the means to spend money on these communities are sitting again saying, ‘These communities they’re poor, they don’t have this.‘ However you’re the one with the assets. Spend money on them and alter what the narrative is

Drake and husband Brad Schiever planted their first seed March 1 and by April 15, had their first harvest going out the door beneath the moniker Ditto Meals to residents in Drake’s hometown of Ford Heights, clients of the web farmer’s market, MarketWagon.com, which delivers on to properties in a seven-county area of Chicagoland, clients of Oak Park’s co-op grocery retailer Sugar Beet, and a pair Downers Grove eating places. Inside what appears like a freight transport container, vitality environment friendly LED mild panels function the sunshine and warmth supply for Ditto Food’s wares: a number of varieties of lettuces, herbs, leafy greens, root greens (bok choy, collard greens). Its specialty is purple and inexperienced butterhead lettuce, aka a salad combine known as the Butta’ Mix.

Seedlings take root at Derek Drake’s hydroponic farm in Mokena.
Seedlings take root at Derek Drake’s hydroponic farm in Mokena. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

“Once you’re consuming hydroponic lettuce that’s harvested the day of — recent, stay lettuce, you get to style the entire completely different nuances, completely different flavors that the lettuce truly has,” Drake stated. “The stuff you get on the grocery retailer, by the point you get it, it’s been useless for 2 to a few weeks. The great thing about Market Wagon, we harvest that morning and also you get it that afternoon so that you’re getting produce that’s nonetheless alive and the foundation remains to be hooked up.”

Solely eight months into manufacturing, Ditto Meals is rising herbs for the vacations comparable to sage and thyme, rosemary and marjoram. Drake stated when the farm is absolutely stocked, it may possibly develop as much as 3 acres of produce. Which fits Drake simply advantageous since his for-profit enterprise has a mission: To be about group, particularly the Ford Heights group. Uninterested in Googling Ford Heights and studying tales about crime, poverty and medicines, Drake is all about altering the narrative of the place he was born and raised and nonetheless calls residence. The rationale for Ditto Meals is creating entry for these in Ford Heights.

“We are saying they don’t have … it’s not speculated to be that method,” Drake stated. “The issue is funding. Individuals who have the means to spend money on these communities are sitting again saying, ‘These communities they’re poor, they don’t have this.‘ However you’re the one with the assets. Spend money on them and alter what the narrative is. I personally needed to vary the narrative of what got here out of my group. I really feel like I did one thing nice with my life. I do know numerous folks that got here out of Ford Heights which can be doing actually nice issues, I needed that to be the narrative.”

Produce and a part of the proceeds from the sale of farm produce goes again to the Ford Heights group by the use of meals donation to their meals pantry (by means of the Cornerstone Neighborhood Improvement Corp.) and project-based initiatives for Ford Heights youth, Drake stated.

Drake has been giving again to his hometown in numerous methods over the previous decade, from mentorship by means of sports activities and teaching programs to instructing youth about entrepreneurship. Drake desires to place one other hydroponic farm within the municipality’s borders, and create a micro-grocery the place the farm’s items are bought from. Ditto is at the moment internet hosting an artwork contest for school-age college students to submit artwork work to brighten the Mokena farm. Money prizes and a black-tie occasion are linked with the endeavor. The couple desires to deliver Ford Heights college district youngsters to the Mokena farm to do excursions and educate them concerning the prospects of hydroponics. Drake and Schiever deal with educating folks on what Ditto Meals is doing recurrently, from native cooks to grocery retailer staff.

Derek Drake’s farm and home in Mokena on Oct. 27, 2022.  After being furloughed in the pandemic, Drake began pursuing his dream of becoming a farmer through hydroponics.
Derek Drake’s farm and residential in Mokena on Oct. 27, 2022. After being furloughed within the pandemic, Drake started pursuing his dream of turning into a farmer by means of hydroponics. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

“We allow them to are available in and see the precise place the place their meals comes from. And in order that method once you’re at Sugar Beet, otherwise you’re buying from Market Wagon, and also you name them, Market Wagon has been out right here to see how the meals is grown and what we do,” Drake stated. “We now have cooks debating in the event that they wish to go native, we’ll drop off a pattern and say are you able to come see the place it’s grown? Completely. We would like them to see what we’re doing and the way we’re doing it. In order that method they know what goes into the meals that they buy.”

“We’re not simply rising lettuce,” Drake stated. “I knew I needed to do one thing that was type of a love letter to Ford Heights.” The concept first started with a meals truck idea — one thing small, transient, and delivered to the group to present Ford Heights residents accessibility to meals. In doing his analysis, he discovered transport containers. For a complete 12 months, Drake lived and breathed the small print about hydroponics.

“I I grew up with a backyard, however I didn’t work in agriculture. I labored on the tip results of the meals system and so I consumed all the things I probably may eat,” he stated. Ditto Meals was fashioned in April 2020. Funding proved difficult for a startup farm within the pandemic, however one financial institution officer referred the pair to a different financial institution lender who stated sure. The container for his or her farm arrived on New 12 months’s Eve 2021 and since then, Drake says Ditto “has been rocking and rolling.”

“It’s been nonstop,” Schiever stated. “We’re busy on the times that we harvest, as a result of we harvest no sooner than 24 hours earlier than delivering. Our greatest deliveries are on Tuesday after which Friday is our subsequent supply date for the week. So the nights earlier than are busy. Seeding and germinating aren’t too unhealthy as a result of you possibly can sit and watch TV whilst you’re doing it, drop the plugs in, drop the seeds in. After which it’s simply actually upkeep and that’s the place the love for the enterprise is available in. As a result of Derek will spend the time out right here, activate music, undergo clipping all of the crops and trimming and ensuring they keep wholesome.

“We joke that he’s the guts and the imaginative and prescient and I’m the pinnacle as a result of I’m taking a look at all of the numbers, however the factor is whereas the mission half is his area, we each consider in it. We’re very mission-based on creating entry.” Drake donates a portion of his produce to Ford Heights.

When Drake and household are sleeping, the crops are doing their heavy lifting and getting their vitamins from a managed water tank on a timer, and an HVAC system that regulates and screens the within temperature. Schiever stated controlling the depth of the LEDs can change how briskly the produce grows. The usual is six to seven weeks, however LED mild depth energy can add or take off per week or two if want be.

“Relying on how we plant, if we put herbs between the lettuce heads and interior crop, the farm can maintain simply over 8,800 crops at one time and typical development from seed to reap is anyplace from 5 to 6 weeks,” he stated. “It turns in a short time and the capability with this mannequin (container), we’ve the flexibility to fluctuate how fast we would like it to supply. And since it’s a managed atmosphere, there’s no herbicides, pesticides; we management the pH ranges. The water is reverse osmosis that has vitamins added to it so there’s no probability of water runoff like in filth farming. It’s very clear farming. We use lower than 5 gallons of water a day. All of the water together with the humidity that’s not absorbed by the crops because it drips on the roots is funneled again into the tank and recirculated, so there isn’t a wastewater. And the crops will take in the vitamins within the water, precisely what they want.” Subsequent step is solar energy for the Mokena farm.

120 LED boards that emit only select wavelengths of red and blue light, which plants are able to absorb best for photosynthesis. The red light helps the plant grow dense and healthy leaves.
120 LED boards that emit solely choose wavelengths of purple and blue mild, which crops are capable of take in greatest for photosynthesis. The purple mild helps the plant develop dense and wholesome leaves. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

With meals deserts that abound within the Chicagoland space and different areas with meals marts that solely serve prepackaged meals to communities, Drake envisions extra development for Ditto Meals. Prior to now two months, the corporate began a seedling program the place clients should purchase seedlings of all crops that Ditto produces, in addition to different vining gadgets comparable to cucumbers and tomatoes and strawberries. Ditto germinates the seeds and after they’re about 2 inches tall, they pack them up and ship them out so clients can then plant them of their windowsills, potted crops, gardens.

The seeds ship in two days to shoppers in a container particularly for seedlings to allow them to keep moist. Drake stated Ditto is partnering with universities which have hydroponic methods and gardening applications the place they develop meals for his or her cafeterias. Schiever stated Ditto has connections with 19 Texas college districts which have hydroponic methods.

“It’s not only one clipping and so they’re carried out,” he stated. “The lettuce, particularly the kale, we’ll clip as much as 3 times earlier than we replant as a result of they continue to grow.”

“The seedling program for us, is about creating entry,” Drake stated. “We’re permitting folks the chance to develop their very own meals. For us it’s democratizing the meals system, that means having the ability to deliver meals to folks wherever they’re. Our meals system is managed by a handful of individuals. The great thing about what we’re making an attempt to do and different small scale producers and what I actually admire about Market Wagon is that they created a platform the place small scale farmers, producers, cooks can deliver their product to the market to make it out there for lots of people.”

Derek Drake holds some of the lettuce he grows at his hydroponic farm.
Derek Drake holds among the lettuce he grows at his hydroponic farm. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Market Wagon CEO Nick Carter stated he created the web farmers market as a result of his fourth-generation household farm that raises grass-fed beef and pastured pork, wasn’t going to outlive if he didn’t work out a approach to get its merchandise into extra clients’ fingers than simply by means of word-of-mouth and their small Indiana farming group. So, he created the corporate in 2016 in Indianapolis. Market Wagon arrange store for the Chicagoland space in 2021, with a success heart in Blue Island.

The e-commerce website touts about 1,800 farmers on the platform within the Midwestern area. For a $6.95 charge, Chicagoland space residents get native produce delivered to their door from the 42 farmers on Chicagoland’s roster so far. Farmers/artisans set their very own costs to verify it’s worthwhile for them. Any meals producers — caterers, cooks, farmers, yard gardeners who wish to be a part of the Market Wagon household can achieve this by filling out a vendor software on the web site.

“The principle factor is that it’s native, that you just stand behind the product and it’s not simply one thing that you just’re shopping for at an public sale and promoting on-line, and that you just’ve obtained all of the certifications or something legally that you’ll want to have, like for cooks, they should have a allow from the board of well being. After that, we get you on-line and also you checklist your merchandise, after which it’s as much as the client to determine,” Carter stated.

Carter stated his household farm has grown clients fourfold since 2016. Carter desires to have a Market Wagon in each main U.S. metropolis within the subsequent three years.

“When it’s the person shopper who desires to buy native farmers, none of them can get supply from a farmer,” Carter stated. “So we aggregated all of it collectively and batch all of it up in order that we will deliver that e-commerce supply to your door and comfort with farmers market provide chain. It’s simply been an incredible expertise to have the ability to do that for all of the small household farms and small meals producers who’re in the identical boat with us.”

Derek Drake enters his hydroponic farm where he grows several types of lettuces, herbs, leafy greens and root vegetables.
Derek Drake enters his suburban hydroponic farm the place he grows a number of varieties of lettuces, herbs, leafy greens and root greens. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Ditto Meals desires to develop to a few farms in 5 years. Drake stated he’s mulling a grocery retailer idea known as Your Dwelling Grocer, the place bricks-and-mortar shops will likely be created after group residents share their desires and desires for a group grocery. He stated he’s looking for buyers.

“There’s sufficient for all of us,” Drake stated. “If we get a bunch of small-scale producers collectively, we will go to an enormous chain like with Jewel, Kroger or Mariano’s and say ‘hey, we will give you what you want in the event you use this collective of small-scale farmers’ and we small-scale farmers may even determine amongst ourselves ‘OK, I’ll develop this, you develop this, and we’ll strategy them with these crops.’ ”

Trying again, Drake stated the pandemic affected him in one of the best ways attainable, forcing him to do the factor that he was introduced right here to do — persevering with to do as a lot as he can to rejoice communities that don’t have anyone celebrating them.

“That is what I’m speculated to do,” he stated. “If I say ditto to you, that’s an settlement that we simply made. Ditto is reciprocity. After I say Ditto Meals, meaning I comply with make the highest quality clear, sincere meals and also you comply with buy my clear, sincere meals. So Ditto is an settlement between you and I.”

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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