Vertical Farming Is The American Dream For This Entrepreneur
A Utah family of Korean immigrants is hoping to tap into the vertical farming market, an endeavor where values in the United States are projected to reach $3 billion by 2024 according to recent market research.
Since moving to Utah in 1987 to pursue a master's in bioengineering at the University of Utah, Chihan Kim and his family have headed up a string of local business ventures, from a gas station to glove manufacturing and a coffee shop.
In February, Kim said he found a "good deal" on a warehouse near 150 East and 4500 South and purchased it. "Plan A was renting the building to somebody," he said, but "I looked into several different businesses" in case "I cannot find a tenant."
One of the options he looked at was indoor farming. Kim said, "When I started (researching) indoor farming business, I liked it, you know, so I changed (my) mind to do a business in the building instead (of leasing)."
According to Jack Wilbur, spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, there are currently three commercial vertical garden operations in Utah that supply to restaurants and farmers markets in the state.
Wasatch Community Gardens also runs a vertical farm operation, although not for commercial purposes. The community garden's Green Team initiative provides a farm-based job training program for women who are experiencing homelessness.
At the time Kim submitted his application, Murray had no land use code for a vertical farming operation.
"Mr. Kim came in and said, 'I want to start indoor farming,'" said Murray City Community Development manager Jared Hall. He said city representatives told Kim, "We don't actually have something specifically for that, we don't have anything specifically prohibiting it either."
Eugene Kim and his father, Chihan Kim, pose for a portrait at their coffee shop, The Bean Yard, in Sandy on Thursday, July 18, 2019. Chihan Kim initiated an ordinance to allow vertical farming in Murray, which the City Council passed.
Hall said the city was supportive of the initiative, noting "the planning commission was very positive about it from the get go."
He said the idea of zoning for indoor farming appealed to the commission and the council so much they took the initiative one step further. "We took Mr. Kim's application and broadened it basically to include other zones," he said.
He noted that the building Kim hopes to farm in is located in the city's commercial development zone. However, the commission felt other zones would also be appropriate for future projects.
The ordinance, recommended to the City Council by the planning commission, was passed by the council unanimously on June 18.
The measure amended text in both the city's standard land use code and municipal code to allow for indoor farming in the city's mixed use, manufacturing general, commercial development, transit-oriented development and business park zones.
"In an area like Murray, where things are built out, we don't have large agricultural areas anymore. It's nice to put food production close by," Hall said, noting that the commission and council "saw a lot of pluses and not a lot of detriments" to the ordinance.
It was precisely this type of flexibility and room to grow that Kim said inspired him upon arrival in the United States to move away from academics and into business investments.
"In Korea, I have to go to school, good engineering school, then I can get a good job, then I can live comfortably. That's why I studied," he said.
After obtaining an engineering degree in Korea, Kim said he came to Utah to earn a master's degree, followed by a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Utah.
"I planned to go back to Korea and work as a professor, you know, that was my original goal," he said.
However, Kim said, when he began exploring the U.S. he saw it as a "large open land" and realized "study is not everything."
"There's so many other things to do in the United States of America," he said, recalling that while his fellow students and colleagues at the university seemed to enjoy academics, he said he studied only "to survive."
His first business operation was a gas station, which he said he expanded to include a car wash and a site for safety and emissions inspection. In the mean time, Kim said, he started two other businesses, one selling eyewear and another exporting medical equipment to South Korea.
"I still have a lot of inventory," he said, indicating his personal glasses on the table beside him and noting that the frame was his own design.
According to Kim, his most successful business thus far has been Advanced Gloves, a venture which he happened upon after a friend from Korea asked for his help marketing a new glove model he'd produced.
"I did not really mean to be in that business," he said, adding that he had meant to simply "find (a) buyer (in the U.S.) and connect him." However, after bringing samples to various buyers, he said he found the product to be quite successful.
"I don't know if you see a FedEx Express driver come to your office. If you see them, they wear our gloves," he explained.
As he spoke, Kim sat at a table in the Bean Yard, a coffee shop he owns and manages along with his wife, Haisoon Kim, and his son, Eugene Kim.
The coffee shop is located in Sandy, though Eugene Kim noted the family has plans to open another location in Salt Lake City this summer.
He said his father's latest business venture, indoor agriculture, was inspired by market research on the productivity of this type of agriculture.
"Growing outside is becoming more difficult, because seasons are changing, and people aren't able to predict the weather as well, as they had before," he said. "Hydroponic gardening in general is something that I think is good for people to start getting into now. And it's something that I think will ensure a more sustainable future."
Research for his venture in vertical farming has taken Chihan Kim as far as Korea and China to meet with suppliers for indoor agriculture equipment and research centers.
Eugene Kim noted that though his father had originally set his mind on lettuce, after some discussion and research the family had decided strawberries would be the best crop for their operation.
"The way that we see it is that lettuce, in general, does not make any money, and so (Chihan Kim) moved on to the next option of potentially doing strawberry farming", he said. Also, because strawberries tend to absorb a higher number of pesticides, he said, cultivating them indoors would be a good way of avoiding this.
Chihan Kim noted that his University of Utah studies will likely come in handy.
"Because I have an engineering background I can run this cultivation facility optimally," he said. His background and research will help him effectively test the efficiency of elements such as humidity levels, light and temperature.
To cover the start-up cost for the business, Kim plans to apply for federal agriculture loan programs, though he has also looked into and may apply for a state program that offers financing of up to $100,000 for high tunnel or indoor farming operations.
Wilbur said if Kim were to apply for and receive funding through the program, he'd be the first in the state to take advantage of it.