Jim Bloom, the owner of Farm 360, wants his business to be more than a job for him. He also wants it to be more for his community than an occupied tenant near the city center. Located in Indianapolis, Ind. — a city with a population of 852,866 and growing — Farm 360’s original goal was to create jobs. Having lived in Midwest urban areas for the past several years, Bloom identified a need and set out to fill the void by establishing a vertical produce operation that fresh, organic produce like lettuce, basil and Swiss chard.
Now, in addition to helping someone pay their bills or hold down a stable job, he’s offering his surrounding community something they might not have had before.
Another benefit of Boom’s newfound business is that he has tapped into something potentially profitable, as growing sustainable food locally in cities for residents who value healthy eating has become more popular in the past few years.
Interest in buying local only continues to grow as well; an article in August 2015 edition of Forbes magazine reports that local food sales will grow to $20.2 billion by 2019.
Wanting to make a difference
Before founding Farm 360, Bloom primarily worked in vocational rehabilitation and owned his own company. But he had spent a part of his life looking for ways to employ people in urban areas and offer up potentially sustainable employment to those who weren’t always able to find it.
After reading a book by Ken Meter, an agricultural professional who is best known for building food systems in rural and urban locales, Bloom become interested in the idea of growing food for cities. From there, he learned that the demand for fresh, local produce in cities was higher than the available supply.
“Long story short, I sold my company and embarked on a three-year quest to learn how a person could actually go into food production in an urban area,” he says. “It sounds kind of funny now, but the goal was to come up with a system to create jobs and it evolved into what it is now.”
From here, his hope is that the business can continue to expand. He says a few additions are already in the works for 2017 and the plan is to continue building within the city. At the moment, all of their growing space is full and in use and as they've been expanding, Farm 360 has already identified unused buildings to grow into.
Repurposing buildings does require monetary investment and takes about six months to properly prepare, but it is cheaper than building entire new structures. Farm 360 has also received grants to help further offset costs. As a result, Bloom expects the business to be profitable by the end of next year.
Growing with Indianapolis
In 2016, Indianapolis was named one of the 10 best cities for young professional by Forbes. The financial publication — which also put cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Dallas on the list — cited Indy’s almost $50,000 average salary and growing urban businesses as a main reason why.
These characteristics of Indiana’s biggest city are highly valued by Farm 360. A big part of their growth is in partnership with local businesses, as their desired clientele is the young, urban professional who wants his or her fridge filled with locally grown produce. Their supply chain is simple: Sell to local distributors and restaurants that then get it into the hands of consumers. It helps, too, that the main growing location is only 1.5 miles away from the heart of downtown Indianapolis and the local businesses populating that area.
“There’s a good market here for [locally grown produce],” he says. “But there wasn’t the supply.”
Farm 360 is co-owned by Englewood Sustainable Ventures, an Indianapolis-based company that focuses on community redevelopment projects. For Bloom, that’s important because it allows the business to continually invest in its home and do what it can to improve its community. For him, that’s ultimately what matters most.
Ripping up the book
Nothing about Farm 360 is standard, starting with its employees. Among his 12 employees, one is a medical student who simply likes the work; most are local residents and many are working for the first time in horticulture.
“I hope they learn and become growers,” Bloom says, “because we are going to need them.”
But Farm 360 is also growing in a way that breaks any set mold. While they do use a standard CropKing growing system, they customized it themselves in order to fit their vertical operation. Bloom says they decided to use CropKing because their products came highly recommended by other hydroponic growers in the area he reached out to and learned from.
Although the company does not traditionally sell vertical farming systems, Bloom says CropKing has worked with Farm 360 and help them adjust and tweak the products as they go. In fact, they have been willing to help with the experimentation and the custom-fitting. At the same time, Farm 360 also expanded from two tiers to five tiers and will soon add a sixth. And as they expand, Bloom says they’ll only add more.
“We try to make it pragmatic,” Bloom says. “We do a lot of our own engineering, we do a lot of our own work — which is what farmers do.”
More recently, his interest has extended beyond improving the local economy Through self-teaching and learning on the job, he says that he is fascinated by what plants can do, and what they can offer the community at large.
“I’ve fallen in love with plants and with farming,” Bloom says. “I basically consider myself to be a farmer now first and foremost. While I still want to create jobs and redevelop communities, I’ve developed a love for growing healthy food.”