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Growing Up

By Ruth Keyso, Director of Alumni Relations & Giving

For urban farmers Ben Kant '03 and Shockey Funke '03, there's no such thing as an ordinary day. At their office, an aquaponic farm in the heart of Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, there's always something to fix, fill or, in the case of the tilapia, feed. Along a busy stretch of Chicago Avenue on the city's west side, the pair built a farm on what was once a dairy and later became a parking lot for semi trucks. There, they grow fish, basil, lettuce, and myriad other herbs, in a trio of bays that they designed and built themselves.

Ben says it's a thrill to own and operate a farm in the middle of the city as this means immediate access to fresh food for thousands of Chicagoans. Producing and selling locally allows him to move produce from farm to fork in no time, unlike imported lettuce producers, whose crop can languish in transport for up to one week. "Our lettuce lasts a week and a half," Ben boasts.

Neither Ben nor Shockey has a formal background in agriculture: Ben was a finance major; Shockey studied film and literature. Their success stems from their curiosity about the environment and their surroundings, their adeptness at solving problems, and their mad DIY skills. The pair built Metropolitan Farms from scratch: constructing the raft beds, hanging the grow lights, building the coolers, and clearing the concrete to make space for prairie grass.

Then came the hard part: Getting the crops to grow.

"It was a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation," says Shockey, the heart of the farm's day-to-day operations. Factors such as temperature, seasons, nutrients, and pests tested their crop and tried their patience. But working through their problems—and watching their crop thrive—is richly rewarding. Seeing others, including local chefs, excited about their yield is an added bonus. "That helps me keep everything in perspective," Shockey says.

Nearly one year old, Metropolitan Farms is a fully functional business with growing wholesale channels and a thriving farmers market following. Ben is proud of the model he and Shockey have built and enjoys the independence of being his own boss.

"We're pioneers here; we're moving forward from our own willpower," he says. "That's satisfying in and of itself. We know that if we succeed or fail, it's a direct result of what we do."

Former classmates Ben Kant '03 and Shockey Funke '03 are co-founders and owners of Metropolitan Farms. Learn more about their business at: http://www.metro-farms.com

Posted by Ms. Grace Kim in Summer 2016 on Thursday August 11, 2016
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