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The image of the idyllic American farm, with its miles of sun-drenched crops and rolling green pastures, is an illusion.
In reality, conventional agriculture is an inherently flawed industry that poses serious threats to many of the planet’s finite resources by damaging topsoils, sapping groundwaters, and burning fossil fuels.
“The food system as we know it is incredibly outdated,” says Jon Friedman, co-founder and President of Freight Farms, a pioneering Boston-based indoor agriculture startup. “Fortunately, as a society, we are becoming more aware of the environmental effects of the way food is being produced.”
Friedman stands at the forefront of a burgeoning indoor agriculture movement that could revolutionize the way we farm in the future.
“Technology is going to play a huge roll in modernizing the global food system,” he tells BTR.
At Freight Farms, Friedman and co-founder Brad McNamara designed a vertically stacked hydroponic farm inside of an insulated shipping container. They call it the Leafy Green Machine.
If you’ve ever heard of the term hydroponics—a fancy word for growing plants without soil—it has likely been within the context of cultivating certain illicit, homegrown greenery. But this method was actually developed by NASA in an effort to discover whether or not plants could grow in space, without access to earth.
In hydroponics, plants sit in an inert medium such as clay or sand while their root systems bathe in a solution of mineral nutrients. When raised in soil, plants expend energy sending roots in search of these nutrients, but in the hydroponic process, energy can be channeled into vegetative growth instead.
Each Leafy Green Machine comes equipped with environmental sensors that measure humidity, pH levels, temperature, and CO2. Farmers can monitor and control the climate through a mobile app, ensuring that their crops receive exactly what they need in exactly the right amounts.
Photo courtesy of Freight Farms.
By virtue of existing in a shipping container, Leafy Green Machines are impervious to drought, rain, and debilitating freezes. They maximize water efficiency and eliminate the need for harmful pesticides and fertilizers. Best of all, they are highly mobile, meaning that they can fresh produce year-round regardless of their location.
Freight Farms is one of many companies that aim to democratize agriculture by turning underutilized urban space into local farms. Friedman estimates that one 320-square-foot container can yield as much as a two acre plot of land.
“The Leafy Green Machine plays a key role in urban food resiliency, food security, and reducing the environmental impacts of food production,” he says.
As consumers become more educated, their tastes evolve, creating a larger market for locally produced food. With their interests driving the industry toward tech-savvy farming, more and more operators are moving into the indoor agriculture space.
Edenworks, a Brooklyn-based aquaponics startup, hopes to develop the underlying infrastructure for this agricultural revolution.
“Industrial agriculture doesn’t have to be a dirty word,” says Jason Green, CEO co-founder. “It’s what feeds all of us, whether we like it or not. But if we are going to feed nine billion people by 2050, we need responsible, high-density industrial solutions to food cultivation.”
The Edenworks “Farmlab” greenhouse is a balmy haven built on the rooftop of a metalworking warehouse in Bushwick. On a winter day, the air inside feels warm and dense with humidity. Rows of vertically stacked beds cradle arugula, red-veined sorrel, and basil. Water filtration systems whirr gently along the walls.
Unlike the hydroponic system implemented by Freight Farms, Edenworks fosters a symbiotic relationship between plants and fish. Behind the terraces of micro greens and herbs, 250-gallon tanks house cultures of red and blue tilapia, as well as an experimental population of prawn. Rather than bathe the plants’ roots in inorganic fertilizers, Edenworks separates solid fish waste from the nutrient-rich water and breaks it down with bacteria and oxygen before pumping it back into the system. The plants then further filtrate the water and return it to the fish. On the whole, the process reduces water usage by 90 percent.
As with many up-and-coming indoor agriculture initiatives, technology plays a key role in the management of the Edenworks Farmlab. Growth statistics are closely monitored with sensors that feed information to a mobile app. As operators log information, the app learns and calibrates to better serve future users.
Of the many issues that plague the agriculture industry, Green cites a lack of truly nutritious food as one of the most pernicious. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the world actually produces enough food to provide every person with 2,700 calories every day, yet over 800 million people in the developing world suffer from chronic malnutrition.
“Still,” Green says, “we’re not actually growing enough fruits and vegetables for everyone. We’re growing tons of corn and soy, so we have plenty of calories, but what we don’t have is specialty crops. These technologies allow us to grow nutritious food again—not just empty calories.”
Photo courtesy of Instagram user @nutritiontraveler.
For now, the Farmlab focuses on short-cycle, high-revenue crops like herbs and leafy greens, but the system could be adapted to suit any type of specialty crop. Next year, Edenworks will expand their operation to a retrofitted warehouse in Long Island City, which will dramatically increase production. While the company currently caters mainly to restaurants, it aims to develop a mobile architecture than could be implemented anywhere in the world.
“We need a better solution, a more sustainable solution, a more nutritious solution to growing food,” says Green.
The next time you enter a supermarket and eye the pyramids of exquisitely preserved apples and bell peppers, or the dewy rows of kale and cabbage heads, consider the odyssey they traveled before ripening on your shelves. Consider that immense quantities of the earth’s precious and finite resources yielded these perishable items. Consider that one day, you might be able to grow these crops on the rooftop of your building, or in the empty lot down the street. Consider that your actions can reduce the strain of the system on the rest of the world.