The pandemic, with its lockdowns and travel restrictions, shifted our focus back from the global to the local. That’s a good thing for two Miami-based entrepreneurs, sisters Lisa Merkle and Cheryl Arnold. The native Miamians co-founded Imagine Farms, a farm that uses hydroponics to grow large quantities of high-quality food on a small footprint, in 2019.
Previously, Arnold had successfully built an online marketing platform, as well as launched and exited an organic produce delivery service. Merkle had spent 20 years in New York working primarily on an event production business focused on health and wellbeing.
Yet five years ago, the sisters both found themselves as a crossroads. Merkle was recovering from cancer, and Arnold had just left her previous venture.
The initial spark for Imagine Farms came from Arnold’s husband, who discovered a plot of land in Overtown. “He asked if we would be interested in activating the space with a farm,” Merkle told Refresh Miami.
After that initial conversation, everything started to fall into place. They eventually settled on a plot of land in Little Haiti and found an engineer to help them design the indoor farm. This first location produced 100 pounds of lettuce and microgreens each week. In those days, Arnold and Merkle handled everything from sales and marketing to growing and delivering themselves.
Nowadays, Imagine Farms looks quite different. A year after starting the business, the sisters moved into a new Little Haiti location that has 2,000 square feet of growing space. This enables Imagine Farms to produce up to 1,600 pounds of leafy greens each week.
“It’s a super high tech farm,” Merkle explained. The farm is a completely controlled environment with timers, switches, and data portals that let Imagine Farms optimize the growth, health, and flavor of their produce. Merkle and team have customized an off-the-shelf system to fit the needs of the farm and their consumers. Leveraging this technology, Imagine Farms’ system uses 98% less water than typical agricultural production.
“We collect around 22 data points on each leafy green,” said Merkle. “That informs so much of how things are grown, what we sell, our labor inputs – everything.”
Miami-Dade customers can purchase subscriptions starting at $18 to get a pound of lettuce delivered on a weekly or biweekly basis. Merkle reports that their direct to consumer play forms about a third of Imagine Farms’ business. Another third comes from their retail sales, primarily at regional grocery store Milam’s. The last third comes from their wholesale customers.
Merkle signaled that Imagine Farms is exploring a Series A fundraise. The farm hopes to use this funding to develop a high-tech food production facility and warehouse. This fundraise will help Imagine Farms scale their business and meet their customers’ demand.
“We’ve created a really strong proof of concept, we have different channels of distribution, and we have proven that we can grow a variety of leafy greens that contain a ton of health benefits,” said Merkle. She noted that Imagine Farms’ products typically sell out quite quickly.
Imagine Farms also hopes to produce different crops, asserted Merkle: “We want to prove that our system is so flexible that we can also grow tomatoes and berries in the same space.” In part, tech will enable this transition. According to Merkle, the team is exploring the use of robots to augment the work of their 15-person team.
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