An unassuming plot of land sits on the eastside of Indianapolis on 30th Street. From the outside, it looks like an empty lot with a couple of shipping containers on it. But inside those containers is an entire garden. And among the plants, you can find DeMario Vitalis.
Even though he now spends much of his time dedicated to plants, Vitalis wasn’t a farmer when he started all of this. He was just an entrepreneur looking for his next project, and farming — which connected to his history as a descendent of enslaved people and Southern sharecroppers — felt like the right choice. “It was just a way to become an entrepreneur,” he said, “and also get back into the type of occupation my ancestors once had.”
Despite two degrees from Purdue University and a Master's degree from Wayne State University, Vitalis doesn’t have a background in farming, and had to put himself through some education before diving into his urban farm. He took online classes and even visited Freight Farms in Boston to learn about the equipment and process. “It does take a learning curve,” he said. “It’s not easy to learn how to farm; you have to learn how to react to the plants.”
Sometimes his daughter will help him with the planting. Johnson, too, will help out and trim plants, clean or help with planting, and occasionally brings her grandson along. Understanding how the farm works was a learning curve for her, too. “I didn’t know anything about hydroponic farming,” she said. “When I saw that wall of plants, I didn’t think it was possible.”
After some research, Vitalis found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will supply loans for these types of businesses, so he requested $50,000 to help him pay for one container and was promptly denied.
The people evaluating the profitability of these containers simply didn’t understand how it worked or how much it could produce, he said. But instead of giving up, he pushed back. Black farmers have historically been discriminated against when trying to obtain USDA loans, and he was motivated to make sure his business plan was being fairly evaluated.
Finally one day, a semi-trailer pulled up outside his property with the containers, picked them up with an enormous crane and plopped them right down behind the nearby building. “It was pretty interesting to see a big old 40-foot container fly over a building,” Vitalis said.
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