The Future Is Ripe: How Technology Is Powering the Rise of Urban Farms
Last spring and summer in New York City, a fantastical pink glow filled the windows of a temporary structure, roughly the size of a railroad boxcar, planted on a stretch of double-width sidewalk before the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue.
The light communicated “daytime” to the 130 cherry tomato plants growing hydroponically inside the 700-square-foot container, an exhibition urban farm designed by indoor agriculture company Infinite Acres, headquartered in Delft, Netherlands.
Heralding a new way to grow crops, a path to bringing cities local, pesticide-free produce with a reduced environmental footprint, the avenue greenhouse was erected as part of the museum’s Countryside, The Future exhibit, mounted with the marquee involvement of Dutch architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas.
The show’s focus is transformation in the world’s rural areas—changes driven by factors such as urbanization, climate, broadband, and migrations. Given the project’s countryside concerns, a tomato farm on a city street registered as something of a wild card. However, as indoor farming continues to expand and evolve, it will inevitably impact rural agriculture. And it’s not inconceivable that a day may come when indoor farming arrives in non-urban zones, feeding people where growing conditions are poor and water is scarce.
The Guggenheim closed for months when the pandemic hit. But the urban farmer seeing to the tomatoes and the technology helping them thrive, Tel Aviv–based indoor crop specialist David Litvin, stayed on the job, snipping vines weekly and donating 100-pound harvests to local food banks. Colleagues in Delft assisted remotely, monitoring growth data and imagery captured via sensors and cameras.
The Science (and Science-Fiction Vibes) of Indoor Farming
Plants grown hydroponically receive sustenance from water-based, nutrient-rich solutions bathing their roots in trays. In commercial indoor farming, these trays get stacked in racks, which is why the practice is often called vertical farming.
The glow emanating from the sidewalk container, a rich magenta that at night lent the object a science-fiction vibe (think Color Out of Space, where a crashed meteorite radiates an eerie fuchsia), was generated by LED grow lights, which sent photosynthesis-charging wavelengths into the plants. Indoor farmers use precise “light recipes” typically dominated by red and blue LED diodes, since plant chlorophyll best absorbs energy from these spectrum ranges.
The Rem Koolhaas–powered exhibit looks to the future. How transformative indoor farming will be in coming years depends in part on how far the technology advances. Indoor farms occupying warehouse-size spaces have to power their grow lights, climate-control systems, automation, and ventilation. With improved energy efficiency and even greater crop yields, the industry will be better able to scale.
At present, it doesn’t make economic sense to vertically grow bulk grains and cereal crops, as these are low-margin products with long shelf lives. But the rapid multiplication of indoor farms cultivating leafy greens and other produce testifies both to current market potential and technological capability.
London’s Crate to Plate and New York City’s Bowery Farming are two indoor farming companies supplying cities right now, with big plans for the future.
From Finance to Farming
For Sebastien Sainsbury, founder and CEO of Crate to Plate, it was a close encounter with another hydroponic exhibition farm that sparked his “180-degree turn” from investment banker to head of a farm startup growing kale, basil, microgreens, and more inside 40-foot-long soil-free containers that can be erected anywhere—including in parking lot locations in the heart of London.
In 2015, Sainsbury was in Italy visiting Expo Milano, a world’s fair whose theme was global food security. The USA Pavilion, which featured a towering, football field–length vertical farm, seized his attention.
“I was blown over,” Sainsbury says. “I didn’t know you could grow crops vertically.”
He began researching urban agriculture and was struck by the environmental potential of hydroponic farming—far less land and water needed; minimal food waste; and produce grown close to the consumer, reducing food miles, eliminating supply-chain spoilage, and ensuring longer shelf and home freshness.
Passionate about sustainability, and someone whose family has deep roots in the food business (his great-grandfather founded the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain), the financier took a leap, relocating to Florida mere months after the Milan trip. Partnering with biotechnologist and hydroponic farmer John Sticha (today Crate’s science officer and head of farming), Sainsbury spent nearly four years doing research and development, piloting product lines, and selling locally.
After designing custom nutrient solutions and 200 varieties of produce, the duo shifted their operation to England, and Crate to Plate was born.
This spring, the company enjoyed a three-farm harvest. That farm count will grow to a dozen soon. “We’ll also be supplying just-picked greens to a new 3000-home residential and retail development in Central London,” Sainsbury says.
One of his 40-foot-long container farms yields the same volume of produce as an acre of farmland, and uses 96 percent less water. And his product is more nutrient-packed than conventionally farmed and transported greens.
“Produce grown in soil loses 40 percent of its nutritional value after 48 hours,” Sainsbury says. “Our greens are local as local can be.”
The CEO savors the thought of Londoners enjoying picked-that-morning spinach, or “creamy and tender kale, not that dinosaur kale you get in stores.”
His farms are a short walk away for thousands of city residents and a short ride via electric delivery scooter for thousands more in homes and office towers.
Sainsbury’s dream? Hundreds of his container farms, in neighborhoods, staffed by a neighborhood farmer, aided by growth technology and remote monitoring.
His biggest challenge?
“Teaching the consumer that produce grown without soil and sunlight is not Frankenfood,” Sainsbury says. “It’s healthier, more eco-friendly, and tastes better.”
The High-Tech, Small-Footprint Future of Farming
Providing access to fresh produce for more people at an affordable cost is a Crate to Plate long-term goal. A similar mission animates Bowery Farming, says founder and CEO Irving Fain. After majoring in English at Brown University, Fain, like Sainsbury, worked in investment banking, helping early-stage companies raise money. But entrepreneurship had always appealed to him, the health of the planet mattered to him, and food and cooking were passions. In 2015, he founded Bowery Farming. During the past five years, the company has developed its own proprietary software, the Bowery Operating System, and uses AI, machine learning, and automation at its three large indoor farms (two in Kearny, New Jersey, outside of Newark, and a newer one established roughly 20 minutes from Baltimore).
The technology enables constant refinement of Bowery products (dozens of varieties of greens) at the levels of growth rate, yield, nutrition, and taste. And by positioning farms “right outside cities,” as Fain puts it, Bowery can get produce onto shelves or into homes via a delivery service just a day or two after harvest.
The company’s strategy has been successful, with more than 650 stores now offering their greens, up from 100 in January. Investors include top chefs Tom Colicchio and José Andrés, and David Barber of Blue Hill Farm and restaurants, an advocate for a more restorative agriculture and a greener food system.
When discussing Bowery from a sustainability standpoint, Fain mentions the constantly improving efficiency of LED grow lights and his company’s determination to power future farms with renewables. Bowery can build a farm quickly, repurposing an existing structure on a city’s margins, and get fresh produce to urban consumers while maintaining a small carbon footprint.