How Vertical Farming Could Save the Planet
"Take a leaf; just use your hand." Tom Colicchio directed a group of guests at dinner at River Park, instructing us to smell then take a bite of a garnish adorning our plates of tuna crudo. "That's amazing—something I hadn't seen before. That's wasabi arugula." The spicy, acidic burst from those leaves hushed the room. In a single bite, the chef explained why he's chosen to be a part of Bowery Farming, a modern farming company that just put its produce on the market.
The three-course meal showed off everything from three kinds of basil—lemon, Thai and Genovese—to pac choy (i.e., bok choy) and the startlingly good wasabi arugula, which Colicchio serves at his recently opened Fowler & Wells. It was all grown inside a New Jersey-based warehouse, using LED lights and zero pesticides. Bowery is just one of the many vertical farming companies that has sprouted up over the last few years. With Earth Day upon us, we're taking a peek inside this growing trend, which just might be the future of farming as we know it.
Having truly landed only five months ago—first at NYC's Foragers Market and recently launching in tri-state area Whole Foods, where it sells two kale varieties, lettuce, arugula, basil and a spring mix—Bowery has already started to take off. It's also planning a new farm in the tristate area, with long-term goals to expand country- and eventually worldwide, making its greens local for customers everywhere. And though it might be one of the most ambitious, Bowery is definitely not alone.
There's AeroFarms, also based in New Jersey, Edenworks in Brooklyn, FreshBox Farms in Massachusetts and Green Sense Farms in Indiana, to name a few. Vertical farms have been cropping up at a rapid pace, and as the world's population continues to rise while also becoming increasingly urban, this indoor agriculture will undoubtedly become more crucial.
"How do you provide fresh food to urban environments in a way that's more efficient but sustainable?" That's the question that led Bowery cofounder Irving Fain to start the company with Brian Falther and David Golden. Sure, Fain admits there are many pieces to this complicated puzzle, rattling off issues like limiting food waste, eating less meat and helping developing countries increase their yield. But he believes his farm's proprietary hardware and software, which helps them to track and fine-tune their processes in real time, can effectively provide quality produce to our urbanizating population.
Though each organization has its own approach, the basic premise is to grow produce in a regulated, indoor environment, stacking beds on top of each other to maximize square footage. By controlling the plants' temperatures, airflow, water, nutrients and growing mechanisms, these farms are able to cultivate their crops much more efficiently than standard outdoor farms. And thanks to these ideal conditions, their growing season lasts an astounding 365 days a year.
"We're over 100 times more productive than the same square footage of farmland," Fain notes.
Falther calls Bowery a hydroponic farm, which means its plants are grown in water fortified with specific nutrients. Edenworks uses a version of this method called aquaponics, creating an ecosystem of aquatic animals and produce working to feed each other.
"Our fish generate manure, which is naturally broken down by a microbiome of soil bacteria into the nutrients that our vegetables need. The vegetables filter the water as they grow, then clean water is sent back to the fish, and around it goes," Edenworks cofounder and CEO Jason Green explains. Over at AeroFarms, they use an aeroponic mist on their plants.
Figuring out how best to grow produce in an environment devoid of natural light and soil is an issue all of these farms face.
But, as Fain points out, "the reality is that organic standards were written at a time when a lot of the technology we have access to today didn't even exist." He urges people to rethink agricultural possibilities, describing Bowery as "post-organic."
Another challenge is ensuring the produce grown on these futuristic farms retains its familiar flavor. That wasn't a problem at last night's dinner, though, and if you've picked up a box of greens at Whole Foods lately, you might not even realize it was grown in one of these vertical farms.
"It's a new paradigm for farming," Colicchio said, "and it's something I'm really excited about."
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