Mon, May 01, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Urban farming flourishes in New York

GROWING ‘GREEN’ GREENS:The city and its environs exhibit constant innovation in agriculture, from rooftop gardens and greenhouses to the huge AeroFarm complex


The urban farm craze is finding fertile ground in New York, where 10 young entrepreneurs are learning to grow greens and herbs without soil, bathed in an indoor, psychedelic light.

In a “hothouse” of invention in a Brooklyn car park, each farms a container, growing plants and vying for local clients in the heady atmosphere of a start-up, fighting against industrially grown food, shipped over thousands of kilometers.

Meet the farmer-entrepreneurs at Square Roots, a young company with a sharp eye for the kind of marketing that helps make Brooklyn a center of innovation well-equipped to ride the wave of new trends.

“It is not just another Brooklyn hipster thing. There is no doubt the local real food movement is a mega-trend,” said Tobias Peggs, one of the co-founders, a 45-year-old from Britain who previously worked in software.

“If you are 20 today, food is bigger than the Internet was 20 years ago when we got on it,” he said. “Consumers want trust, they want to know their farmers.”

He set up Square Roots with Kimbal Musk, brother of Tesla Inc chief executive officer Elon Musk, and they have been training 10 recruits since November last year.

Already well-established in parts of Europe — the Netherlands in particular — the technology is still being pioneered in the US.

The greens are reared in an entirely closed and artificial environment that can be completely controlled, grown vertically and irrigated by a hydroponic system that feeds them water mixed with minerals and nutrients.

Wylie Goodman, a graduate student finishing a dissertation on urban farming at Cornell University, said New York was a captive market for the innovations.

“It makes total sense,” she said. “You’ve got a well-educated and wealthy population willing to pay a lot for good local food” — in this case US$7 per single pack of fresh greens delivered to your door.

New York and its environs have seen constant innovation in urban agriculture from rooftop gardens to the huge AeroFarm complex in neighboring Newark and Gotham Greens, which grows greens and herbs in ultra-modern rooftop greenhouses that can be harvested before breakfast and on a New York plate for lunch.

Halfway through his year-long apprenticeship, Peggs said the 10 young entrepreneurs have already learned how to grow food customers want to buy.

The next stage will begin within a year, he said, with the creation of “campuses” capable of producing greens — similar to the one in Brooklyn — in other large US cities before the initiative rolls out “everywhere.”

His enthusiasm is contagious. About 100 people who took part in a guided tour of the farm this week were for the most part not only willing to shop the greens but also appeared to be mulling over setting up something similar.

However, there are downsides to the business model.

If indoor farms can be adapted to grow strawberries and blueberries, “no one with a background in agriculture” thinks they would replace traditional, soil-based farms, Goodman said.

In addition, products with a denser biomass, such as cereals or beets, are out of reach for the moment.

“If I grew beets, I would have to sell it for US$50 a head,” Peggs said.

The working conditions are also an issue.

“Do you really want to work in an enclosed, glowing environment?” Goodman asked.

Besides, the lighting is too expensive and cultivation spaces at reasonable cost too few, at least for now.

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