Growth industry: Libertyville man plants urban farm in old shipping container
At the 5.5-mile mark of the North Shore Bike Path, east of Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville, a mural depicting microgreens has emerged as a calling card for a new business.
The canvas is the side of an old shipping container. Like the mural, which pictures the hands of Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug surrounded by greens, the location of Zach Paronto's urban farm inside the converted container is unexpected.
Sheet metal shelves hold racks of tiny plants -- like daikon radishes and tendril peas -- grown hydroponically and in various stages of development. Paronto framed and insulated the interior, ran vents, and installed plumbing and electric to create a sterile, climate-controlled environment to regulate the gourmet garnish crops.
The two-month build-out was a curiosity for some neighbors.
"A lot of people thought I was a homeless guy living out of there," Paronto said.
He launched Achaia Greens in Libertyville early this year to grow and sell microgreens, edible flowers and vegetables. Microgreens are highly nutritional and intensely flavorful seedlings of edible vegetables and herbs used in a variety of ways, from juices and salads to decorative garnishes.
Since its launch, the company has secured six businesses, some with multiple locations, as customers. They include Conscious Cup Coffee Roasters, Mainstreet Social and Timothy O'Toole's restaurants, and Real Clean Paleo, a pre-order meal service. Microgreen mixes also are sold and delivered to residential customers. Everything is harvested and delivered -- usually by bike, weather permitting -- the same day.
Michael Shipley, managing partner of Conscious Cup, uses Achaia Greens as a sustainable option for tendril peas. The venue has four locations including downtown Libertyville and is planning to open a fifth this fall in Palatine.
"Places like ours are always faced with these decisions to buy something that may be organic, but it's packaged and shipped from across the country or farther," Shipley said.
"When we can make these hyperlocal purchases and still maintain this really high-quality, it's a no-brainer."
Paronto grew up in Gages Lake with a passion for gardening and plants. While maintaining that intense interest in horticulture and native species, he made his living as a tradesman in various capacities.
After an unpaid internship in a microgreen business in Chicago, he founded Achaia Greens in Charleston, South Carolina. Within three years, the business had a local base and was growing, he said. But Charleston never felt like home, so Paronto and his wife, Geddy, moved to Libertyville last summer.
An attempt to launch the business in another Lake County town didn't work out, but Paronto noticed three nearly hidden shipping containers on the property behind the couple's rented home on Route 176 (Park Avenue) and had an idea.
Overgrown by invasive species and filled with scrap metal and debris, the area was a catchall for a neighboring heating and cooling company.
"You couldn't even walk through here," Paronto said.
After seeing his work on the container, Paronto's landlord, who also owns the heating and cooling business, offered him a job with a flexible schedule that allowed him to work on starting Achaia Greens.
Once the area was cleared and outdoor gardens planted, Paronto envisioned a mural to beautify the spot. His cousin, Jenny Gentry, a mural artist from Colorado, finished the piece July 16.
Microgreens are the focus of the mural, but the two hands of Borlaug, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, also are depicted. A microbiologist and plant geneticist, Borlaug developed a high-yield, disease resistant wheat. He put the new strains into extensive production to feed the hungry of the world and is regarded as a central figure in the "green revolution."
The mural shows Borlaug holding a wheat plant in one hand and a microgreen in another, Paronto said. It represents the progression from reliance solely on staple crops, he added.
To start, Paronto connected with Ellen Williams, program and marketing director for the Adler Arts Center, which operates under the auspices of the village.
Williams connected Paronto and the artist with partners at Rust-Oleum to help with paint, prep and materials. Though not a village project, it's part of Adler's plans to create and support public art initiatives, Williams said.
"We hope to continue to help create more public art in this community both on village and private properties," she said.
Paronto plans to expand.
"This is what I want to do for the rest of my life," he said. "There are thousands of varieties (of microgreens). My plan is to keep growing."