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FarmedHere applying business principles to fashionable idea

BEDFORD PARK, IL — “I am a finance and brand guy,” said Mark Thomann, the chief executive officer of FarmedHere LLC.

Such credentials may be unexpected for someone taking the earthy concept of locally grown produce to new heights, but a focus on financial sustainability and sophisticated branding may be a critical ticket toward the category’s broad future.

Thomann is focused on a commercial, vertical, indoor aquaponic growing system. This is already a financially viable operation, but the businessman plans to gain more experience before extending this concept. “We will do that at the right time,” he said.

Drawing on successful business ventures of the past, Thomann works with a number of substantial investors who take FarmedHere very seriously. Thomann is a frequent speaker at related conferences around the world. “We have had hundreds of inquiries” about getting involved in FarmedHere, he said.

Farmer-MarkMark Thomann, chief executive officer of FarmedHere LLC in Bedford Park, IL, stands before his vertical indoor aquaponic farm. FarmedHere’s shell is a deliberately non-descript brownish-yellow brick warehouse that is west of Chicago’s official city limits. Thomann said there is no reason to bring his patent-pending ideas to the attention of unconnected passers-by.

Inside is a working example of concepts that could be feeding the 9 billion people that Thomann said are expected to walk the planet in 2050.

FarmedHere’s guts involve four long rows of micro-greens that are five to six trays high. The water is fertilized by tilapia, which swim in several large, blue, windowed barrels. The fertile water flows to the trayed vegetables, reaching the root systems but not coming in contact with the plants. Of the fresh water used, approximately 97 percent is recycled.

Neither herbicides nor pesticides are needed or used, and being indoors accommodates year-round production.

When the tilapia reach two pounds they are sold as locally grown fish. Thomann said each fish is named Henry “so we don’t get emotionally involved.”

This system can be replicated in virtually any city.

Although already a commercial success, the Bedford Park system is also a work in progress. Alternate lighting and many other techniques are being tested and perfected before expanding elsewhere. The next farm will also try expanding beyond leafy green and micro-green production.

Rather than analyzing geography and the proper use of the word “local” in marketing locally grown produce, FarmedHere refuses to offer its products to stores outside the Midwest. FarmedHere clamshells are offered in over 200 Chicagoland retail stores, “and we are in restaurants and foodservice operations,” Thomann said. Midwest Foods, based in Chicago, “distributes our products to these customers rather than have us go direct. This is about focus and it’s easier for them to do.”

The tray system is conducive to efficient harvesting techniques. The water system dodges the world’s droughts. Controlled indoor production avoids the heat, cold and weather events that strike with increasing frequency.

Thomann’s brand, FarmedHere, is pretty well-targeted, too, and his vision toward 2050 may be 20/20.