James Forbes was laid off in 2011 from his job as a program coordinator and project manager for the Human Development Corporation, which provided financial assistance and services to help people experiencing homelessness and prevent families from becoming homeless.
“I was pretty passionate about the work. I was able to be on the funding side of a lot of really innovative programs [to ease what was] economically stressing the community,” he said.
After his layoff, Forbes said he experienced a period in which he felt jaded and disheartened with the government and its ability to help people. Also around that time, he and some friends began dabbling in urban farming after he watched an episode of “Doomsday Preppers,” a National Geographic show that features people preparing for the end of the world.
“We decided to start [using] aquaponics in my buddy’s grandma’s garage” between 2010 and 2011, he said. Aquaponics combines systems of growing plants in water and raising aquatic animals, such as fish, snails, crayfish or prawns.
Although Forbes eventually found another local position in the insurance industry, it would inadvertently lead to the moment that changed his career trajectory and planted the seed for what would become Good Life Growing.
While leaving a meeting with St. Louis city officials in his capacity as an insurance agent, Forbes said his nerves got the best of him, and he accidentally dropped a portfolio of aquaponic pictures he carried with him.
St. Louis Alderman Samuel L. Moore saw the pictures as Forbes picked them up from the floor, and he suggested Forbes should take his involvement with growing to the next level. Moore also nudged Forbes to look for gardening sites among the city’s 13,000 vacant buildings and lots.
From that encounter came Good Life Growing, an urban farming company that relies on aquaponic, hydroponic, aeroponic and other organic farming methods to produce quality, local food year-round. Forbes is CEO and a co-founder of the company, which seeks to combat urban decay and food insecurity in North St. Louis by producing inexpensive, local produce while educating community members on urban agriculture and various growing methods.
Forbes and his friends took Moore’s advice and purchased a vacant gas station lot at 4057 Evans Ave. in The Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis, which they later named Evans Avenue Urban Farm. It quickly became evident to them that the lot had been a gathering place for people experiencing homelessness, as they found clothes, books, bags and trash cans those people had left behind.
Forbes and his friends cleaned up the lot and began a garden there. Eventually, neighborhood kids asked if they could help. The men welcomed the offer, as they were juggling full-time jobs as well.
“We thought we would put this up and use it for ourselves. We didn’t think that many people would be interested in what we were doing,” Forbes said, adding that the children began showing up regularly and even started to bring their parents and grandparents to see the garden.
Although they received donations in the form of garden supplies — mainly soil — Forbes said the expenses of owning and operating the lot began to pile up on his credit card.
Eventually the group connected and worked with the St. Louis-based Justine PETERSEN organization, which helps individuals and small businesses to find financing to buy property. Forbes said Justine PETERSEN made a social-impact investment in Good Life Growing, providing capital for the company in the form of low-interest funding and also standing in as a bridge fund.
“Through that relationship, we have won a couple of other grants through the USDA and the Missouri Foundation for Health,” Forbes said.
Two years after buying the property on Evans Avenue, members of the group decided they needed insurance for the venture. In 2013, they formally filed the paperwork to become a social enterprise limited liability company.
“As a social enterprise, we are focused on revenue generation to positively impact the community we are in and being environmentally conscious,” Forbes said.
In 2015, after researching and fulfilling government requirements, Good Life Growing also formed a nonprofit wing. It employs 11 full-time workers, who are referred to as “grow technicians,” and eight paid interns. In addition to Forbes, its leadership team includes co-founder and Chief Operating Officer James Hill; Chief of Horticulture Matt Stoyanov; and Chief of Production Management Bobby Forbes, who is James Forbes’ brother.
Now Good Life Growing is looking into investing in new agricultural technology as well partnering with other businesses in the area to acquire real estate and build what James Forbes describes as a farm hub for applying that technology, which Good Life Growing would own and operate.
“Our trajectory was not traditional in any sense of the form,” he said. “I never thought I’d be doing this full-time and have employees I paid. How we went from a hobby to a side hustle to now [having] 11 full-time employees [has] been a good testament to having a plan and executing it.
“A lot of folks could follow the Good Life Growing mode,” he added. “We didn’t become sustainable for five years; there has never been a year where we, as owners, didn’t have to put money back into the business.”
Forbes also cautions other entrepreneurs against seeking advice from people who work in the farming industry but are based in other parts of the country.
“Figuring out our model has been tremendously helpful. So much of the stuff that works for [other regions] won’t work in the Midwest,” he said. “[It’s about] learning what works in your own market, and putting your own numbers in so you can figure out what price points are and what volumes are [is important] — pretty much like any other business.”
Learning and adapting
Stoyanov, the company’s chief of horticulture, met James Forbes while they both worked at the Human Development Corporation.
“He was my mentor, and I was his protégé,” Stoyanov said.
So when James Forbes approached him about turning the vacant lot into a garden, he was on board.
“I knew from working with him in a past job, we were pretty much on the same page in wanting to help communities and people who suffer from an absurd socioeconomic disadvantage than St. Louis as a whole.” Stoyanov said. “I told him I would join his fight to combat food insecurity.”
When the four men bought the property and began to garden, Stoyanov said he was mostly self-taught in the growing techniques they began to use, he said. But he did have one significant source of information: the Forbes brothers’ mother, Evelyn Forbes, who is an avid home gardener.
“I learned a lot of the techniques and methods from her and kind of took it upon myself on how to take her techniques and methods and apply them on a larger scale,” he said.
Stoyanov said the first couple of months of managing the garden and learning the techniques were difficult.
Unlike farms established on virgin lands that were never developed, the lot the four men bought had been a gas station. They had to find a way to decontaminate the soil and make it conducive to growing plants.
“People just really liked what we were doing, so we started building wooden grow boxes because they were infinitely cheaper” than restoring soil in the lot, James Forbes said.
They now have eight micro-farms totaling 5 acres. They also have a warehouse, aptly named the GreenCubator, on the Mississippi River waterfront at 1124 Lumiere Place Blvd.
Good Life Growing was among the recipients of the 2018 Arch Grants, a program that awards $50,000 in equity-free cash grants and support services to startups located in St. Louis for at least one year. The company used that money in part to build a modular, cloud-based aquaponic system.
Now, six years into its LLC filing, Good Life Growing has the capability to grow anything compatible with the growing region year-round. Some of its regularly planted crops include spinach, lettuce, kale, arugula, Swiss chard, sage, basil, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers and squash.
Stoyanov said those crops are sold at local farmers markets and stores, as well as to individual customers and restaurants.
In addition, the company sets up a mobile produce stand, which is subsidized by BJC HealthCare, every Sunday at the bus stop at Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and Sarah Street. The produce is sold almost below wholesale; everything is priced at $1 in various quantities.
Residents who buy produce from that stand may be saving only a few dollars, but for people with incomes below the poverty line those savings can make a huge financial impact, Stoyanov said.
“Given the location and the lack of healthy food access to the local residents, we have gotten feedback and everyone loves it — they love what we do and what we offer,” he said.
James Forbes said Good Life Growing intends to open a grocery store in the Old North Provisions building at 2720 N. 14th St. in St. Louis. The men also have plans to increase the amount of food grown by purchasing and cultivating more property within the St. Louis area, Stoyanov said.
“We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew, so when it comes to having a larger print — or green print, no pun intended — we want to target communities that are accepting in what we are trying to do,” he said.
Whenever Stoyanov is caught up with maintenance of the farm, he breaks away to take on a more administrative role in which he creates invoices, takes care of accounts receivable, keeps the books and handles human resources. He also takes a few hours throughout the week to try and identify new customers within a 10-15 mile radius of the Evans Avenue Urban Farm who need a source of fresh produce.
“If we can just continue, it’d be ideal to just obtain copious amounts of land and turn them into micro-farms,” Stoyanov said. “We are slowly but surely expanding, but we want to make sure those communities have healthy food-access points. There are areas, unfortunately, that have been left behind as a city as a whole.”