Urban Ag Venture Blends Business and Social Mission

Tera chats with Mark and Judy Thomas of Garfield Produce Co. about creating job opportunities growing microgreens in one of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods.

In Edible-Alpha® podcast #78, Tera is joined by Mark and Judy Thomas, co-founders of Garfield Produce Co., an indoor vertical farm and wholesale food operation in Chicago. The “failed retirees” started this for-profit business/social enterprise in 2014 to provide job opportunities for people with employment barriers.

Following successful careers—Mark as a newspaper production leader, Judy as a corporate lawyer—the Thomases volunteered at a food bank and shelter in East Garfield Park, one of Chicago’s roughest areas. Through their service, they learned that many in this neighborhood struggled to find jobs nearby, especially men who’d been incarcerated. Mark had been wanting to start a business, so they decided to launch an urban hydroponic farm right in this neighborhood, hoping it could open doors for people recently out of prison and ready to build a better life.

Given their social mission, the Thomases could’ve gone the nonprofit route. Instead, they tapped into their business and accounting acumen and made Garfield Produce a for-profit venture. As Mark explained, this ensured a focus on revenue, expenses, bottom line and careful growth and would allow them to share equity with employees if the business proved successful. Tera commended their approach, noting that many urban agriculture entrepreneurs, while well intended, grapple with the business side and don’t end up making it.

After constructing a food-safe climate-controlled grow room with the help of grants, Mark and Judy determined that microgreens made the most sense to grow. As specialty products, microgreens command a much higher price than commodity produce and appeal to high-end chefs looking for consistent, top-quality supplies.

The Thomases’ business plan, including their focus on the foodservice channel, worked wonderfully. Garfield Produce amassed a large clientele while providing great job opportunities locally. By the beginning of 2020, the company was finally in the black.

Then came COVID-19. When Illinois’s governor ordered all restaurants to close in March, Garfield Produce’s sales sank 95% overnight. Fortunately, the company received government grants and loans and was selected for the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program, all of which kept the business alive through the fall. Now, as the pandemic persists and restaurants remain closed or at limited capacity, the company is building up its e-commerce and retail channels to reach more consumers and exploring growing baby greens to appeal to a wider audience.

Through it all, Garfield Produce has maintained what Mark called “the best, most self-directed work team I’ve ever had.” That’s high praise, seeing as Mark once oversaw some 7,000 employees. The Thomases have proven that, beyond just giving ex-cons a chance, working closely with them to develop their job skills and practicing open-book management increases employee engagement and teamwork.

Mark and Judy are excellent examples of how leading with empathy and emphasizing self-empowerment can transform lives while also benefiting the bottom line.