Harvesting cash crops on a sprouting ‘urban farm’

Growth mode: Don's Finest Living Foods, which delivers super-young sprouts and veggies to a health-conscious customer base, is growing fast, according to urban farmer Don DiLillo. (Photo by Jeremy Cirillo)

Don DiLillo’s entrepreneurial journey doesn’t begin in a boardroom, but a basement – in his parents’ basement, on homemade shelves, in boxes of soil and seeds.

In 2016, DiLillo was a 23-year-old working steadily for Empire LED Solutions in Farmingdale. But outside of the lighting-technology business, he was an agriculture enthusiast, a passion ignited over summers working the land at Ronkonkoma’s Thera Farms and cultivated at night, when DiLillo enjoyed YouTube videos spotlighting urban-farming pioneers.

“In college, I was turned on to this really cool urban farmer from Milwaukee named Will Allen,” DiLillo told Innovate LI. “That got my mind going on what you could really do with a farm, and how you could make it all work together.”

Eventually, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry graduate stumbled across his crops of choice – a cross-section of microgreens, sprouts, wheatgrass and legumes making up what DiLillo describes as “living foods.”

“Essentially, they’re just really young plants that are harvested when they are young, so all the nutrients and the vitamins are concentrated,” he said. “Living foods are some of the healthiest foods on the planet.

“Typically, microgreens farmers or microgreens companies grow very small varieties – very flashy or pretty, and chefs just use them as garnish on a plate,” DiLillo added. “I wanted to grow for people’s health. Food is our medicine, and I wanted to grow food specifically to help people.”

And so, Don’s Finest Living Foods was born. DiLillo took roughly $4,000 he saved up from his job at Empire LED and poured it into equipment he would need to build an urban farm in the basement of his parents’ Huntington Station home.

Once his crops were flourishing, he used word-of-mouth networking and a website to build a local customer base, which places regular orders on a “subscription-like” basis, DiLillo said.

DiLillo receives the orders a week or so in advance, grows the crops and personally delivers each batch. Customers can order anything they’d like from his menu of crops, and Don’s Finest also offers a $20 “sample box” featuring an assortment of sprouted chickpeas and sprouted lentils, plus radish, pea and broccoli microgreens, all topped with a five-sprout mix.

Don DiLillo: Putting his money where our mouths are.

“That’s what everybody’s been liking the most,” DiLillo noted. “It’ a pound-and-a-half of living foods.”

Business became cash-positive within nine months, according to the entrepreneur, and by early 2017 he was ready to expand. DiLillo began searching for the right place to build a bigger urban farm and wound up inside the remains of Artie’s Deli, a once-coveted Huntington Station locale on East 17th Street that closed its doors nearly 10 years ago.

“I used to ride my skateboard in the parking lot when I was a kid,” DiLillio noted. “It’s funny that I was once skateboarding in the lot, and now I run my business out of there.”

In May 2017, DiLillo sank the profits from his burgeoning basement farm into rent and revitalizations.

“I dropped in a new floor, I had to do a bunch of plumbing, I brought in all my equipment – another big investment,” he said. “I set that all up, and I’ve been expanding in there ever since.”

As his client base has grown, so has his geographic service area. The Huntington Station enterprise’s customers now span from Syosset to Eaton’s Neck, while DiLillo – no stranger to local farmer’s markets – has also arranged wholesale agreements with a select group of regional health-food stores.

While the business has expanded, the payroll has not: DeLillo has always been a one-man show, sometimes recruiting friends for help and paying them in living foods. Virtually all of his profits are reinvested into the business, he said, allowing him to grow his customer base the same way he grows his produce – organically.

But as he looks to the future, the need for larger accommodations becomes clear and the idea of raising some serious capital has crossed his mind. Right now, the innovator is looking to buy the storefront he currently rents, with designs on expanding his outdoor garden.

He’s also working to promote a new product, an at-home gardening kit he’s dubbed “SproutBox.”

“Between the outdoor farming and the indoor farming, I just need more space,” DiLillo said. “Everything’s expanding at a really good pace for me.

“It’s not too fast, it’s not too slow, and I’m able to take the extra money that I’m making and invest it.”

Don’s Finest Living Foods

What’s It? Urban farm offering a variety of organically grown microgreens, sprouts, legumes and veggies

Brought To You By: Urban farmer Don DiLillo, a 25-year-old Huntington Station entrepreneur with a farming focus

All In: $4,000, self-invested, to equip his first basement farm

Status: Keeping it local, but growing fast

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