If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, Derek Drake would have never discovered his purpose. Furloughed from his job at Northwestern University in 2020, he asked himself: “What’s the right next move?” That move was taking his 25-year working experience in hospitality and restaurants and starting a farming business.

“I never in a million years thought I would be a farmer,” said the father of four. “As I got older and started working in hospitality and working in restaurants, I thought that would be my route — restaurants or being a restaurateur. But when I found this, this was it. I always believe the universe always spins in your direction. You just need to be prepared when it does.”

Drake and husband Brad Schiever planted their first seed on March 1 and by April 15, had their first harvest going out the door under the moniker Ditto Foods to residents in Drake’s hometown of Ford Heights, customers of the online farmer’s market, MarketWagon.com, which delivers directly to homes in a seven-county region of Chicagoland, customers of Oak Park’s co-op grocery store Sugar Beet, and a couple Downers Grove restaurants. Inside what looks like a freight shipping container, energy-efficient LED light panels serve as the light and heat source for Ditto Food’s wares: several types of lettuces, herbs, leafy greens, and root vegetables (bok choy, collard greens). Its specialty is red and green butterhead lettuce, aka a salad mix called the Butta’ Blend.

“When you’re eating hydroponic lettuce that is harvested the day of — fresh, live lettuce, you get to taste all of the different nuances, different flavors that the lettuce actually has,” Drake said. “The stuff you get at the grocery store, by the time you get it, it’s been dead for two to three weeks. The beauty of Market Wagon is we harvest that morning, and you get it that afternoon, so you’re getting produce that is still alive and the root is still attached.”

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