CHICAGO - 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.

That motto is ever present on a small dry erase board on the interior wall of a 320-square-foot hydroponic farm in a trailer container in Mokena, Ill. The farm sits in view of a picturesque lake with catfish and bluegill, and in between Drake's home and the chicken coop that houses weeks-old birds named after characters from the "Golden Girls" TV series and Disney chipmunk characters, Chip and Dale.

"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 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 ordering online, and at a local grocery store as well as a few local 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, root vegetables (bok choy, collard greens). Its specialty is red and green butterhead lettuce.

"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.

Only eight months into production, Ditto Foods is growing herbs for the holidays such as sage and thyme, rosemary and marjoram. Drake said when the farm is fully stocked, the farm can grow up to 3 acres of produce. Which suits Drake just fine since his for-profit business has a mission: to be about community, specifically the Ford Heights community.

Tired of Googling Ford Heights and reading stories about crime, poverty and drugs, Drake is all about changing the narrative of the place he was born and raised and still calls home. The reason for Ditto Foods is creating access for local residents.

"We say they don't have ... it's not supposed to be that way," Drake said. "The problem is investment. People who have the means to invest in these communities are sitting back saying, 'These communities they are poor, they don't have this.' But you're the one with the resources. Invest in them and change what the narrative is."

Produce and part of the proceeds from the sale of farm produce goes back to the Ford Heights community by way of food donation to their food pantry (through the Cornerstone Community Development Corp.) and project-based initiatives for Ford Heights youth, Drake said.

"I grew up with a garden, but I didn't work in agriculture. I worked on the end result of the food system and so I consumed everything I possibly could consume," he said. Ditto Foods was formed in April 2020. Funding proved challenging for a startup farm in the pandemic, but one bank officer referred the pair to another bank lender who said yes. The container for their farm arrived on New Year's Eve 2021 and since then, Drake says Ditto "has been rocking and rolling."

The plants get their nutrients from a controlled water tank on a timer, and an HVAC system that regulates and monitors the inside temperature. Schiever said controlling the intensity of the LEDs can change how fast the produce grows. The standard is six to seven weeks, but LED light intensity strength can add or take off a week or two if need be.

"Depending on how we plant, if we put herbs between the lettuce heads and inner crop, the farm can hold just over 8,800 plants at one time and typical growth from seed to harvest is anywhere from five to six weeks," he said. "It turns very quickly and the capacity with this model [container], we have the ability to fluctuate how quick we want it to produce."

Next step is solar power for the Mokena farm.

With food deserts that abound in the Chicagoland area and other areas with food marts that only serve prepackaged foods to communities, Drake envisions more growth for Ditto Foods.

Ditto Foods wants to grow to three farms in five years. Drake said he's mulling over a grocery store concept called Your Home Grocer, where bricks-and-mortar stores will be created after community residents share their wants and needs for a community grocery. He said he's shopping for investors.

"There's enough for all of us," Drake said. "If we get a group of small-scale producers together, we can go to a big chain like with Jewel, Kroger or Mariano's and say, 'Hey, we can provide you with what you need if you use this collective of small-scale farmers' and we small-scale farmers can even decide among ourselves, 'OK, I'll grow this, you grow this, and we'll approach them with these crops.'"

Looking back, Drake said the pandemic forced him to do the thing that he was brought here to do.

"This is what I'm supposed to do," he said. "If I say ditto to you, that's an agreement that we just made. Ditto is reciprocity. When I say Ditto Foods, that means I agree to make the best quality clean, honest food and you agree to purchase my clean, honest food. So Ditto is an agreement between you and I."