Urban Farms Are Growing Amongst NYC's Skyscrapers
Temperatures dropped to single digits this winter in New York City, but inside the mobile indoor farm demoed by innovative tech company Local Roots on the East Side of Manhattan, it was summertime. Rows of bright-green lettuce sprouting in trays basked under LEDs that mimic natural sunlight, while the circulating water delivered nutrients to their roots. A Los Angeles–based company, Local Roots crossed the country on a hunch. “New York may be a good market for this, so we brought our product here for a demo,” says the company’s CEO and co-founder Eric Ellestad, explaining that the firm transforms shipping containers into vertical hydroponic farms called TerraFarms.
They were right. Indoor farms are germinating in New York’s concrete jungle like never before, spanning most of its boroughs and increasingly trying to serve a diverse audience: rich individuals and poor communities, posh restaurants and local supermarkets.
Indoor agriculture, also known as vertical farming, hydroponics or controlled environment farming, is impervious to floods, frosts and droughts. It doesn’t require pesticides, because there are no pests, although some farms use insects that are beneficial to crops. Hydroponic growing recycles the water that delivers nutrients to plants, so it uses 90 to 97 percent less water than traditional farming — critical in areas with a freshwater shortage. Plants can be stacked in bookshelf-like containers on multiple floors of a building, which lets indoor growers produce a lot more food per acre than a field would.
It also allows harvesting locally year-round, without having to fly or truck the produce, increasing its freshness and reducing its environmental footprint. In his book The Vertical Farm, Dickson Despommier, a former Columbia University ecology professor and a hydroponics pioneer, argues that when the Earth’s population reaches 9 billion in 2050, with 70 percent of people living in cities, arable land will be scarce or too far away. Produce will have to be grown in the very buildings people live in.
New York is making that start now. Located in a basement of a Worth Street building (a prime Tribeca location), Robert Liang’s 1,200-square-foot FarmOne produces over 170 types of rare herbs, leafy greens and edible flowers, some of which don’t naturally grow in New York’s climate, and certainly not in winter. Basil and other greens are sold by weight, while flowers and rare herbs go by count. With their tastes varying from spicy to delicate and from sour to sweet, Liang’s hand-picked gem marigolds and microarugula go to Michelin-starred and other high-end restaurants.
“New York City is one of the best places for indoor farming because of its fine-dining scene — chefs really appreciate our produce,” says Liang. “Also, a densely packed city with a good transportation system works for our delivery methods because we deliver by public transport.” Some deliveries don’t require any transportation — one of Liang’s largest clients, upscale restaurant Atera, is located directly above the farm.
But indoor farming isn’t only for the 1 percent. Gotham Greens, a Brooklyn hydroponic farm, sells its boxed lettuce in supermarkets such as Trade Fair, Key Food and Whole Foods, for $3.99 — a price comparable with other salad mixes. (Ellestad of Local Roots says his technology also allows for price parity with traditional farming.) But in terms of freshness, hydroponic produce surpasses the field-grown greens by as much as two weeks, says Gotham Greens’ co-founder Viraj Puri. “Most leafy green produce is brought to New York from California or Arizona, so by the time it reaches supermarket shelves, it’s already a week old, and by the time it reaches the consumer, it’s even older,” he says. “Ours is delivered within hours of being picked.” Gotham Greens grows its produce on the rooftop of a Whole Foods supermarket that also sells the produce. It has a second farm in Brooklyn, one in Queens and a new location in Chicago.
Bronx-based Sky Vegetables resides on the rooftop of an affordable housing building. The idea was to introduce the farming method and its produce to the underserved community, says founder Henry Gordon-Smith, whose company offers consulting services for those interested in growing food indoors. Sky Vegetables is mostly focused on herbs sold to restaurants, but it does grow some leafy greens like chard, for which there is a demand in the local community. “Ten percent of our product goes to the residents of the building and to the surrounding affordable housing complex,” Gordon-Smith says. “We do a pop-up market at the community center, we sell in our entryway, and we sell to a C-Town.” The company is looking to expand to other locations.
Some farms move outside the city for cheaper rents but continue selling to New York markets while also targeting other urban locales. CEO and co-founder of Bowery Farming Irving Fain maintains his headquarters in Manhattan while growing his produce in New Jersey, and is looking to expand to more cities and countries. Other farmers prefer to stay within the city limits. Thomas Moreau, who started Babylon Farm because he found New York vegetables inferior to French produce, is moving the farm from its original Union Square location to a larger space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He wants to build a catalog of crops. “We are going to start with rare herbs, flowers and greens,” he says. “And also wild strawberries!”
The initial success of these farms point to a demand for fresh, sustainably grown produce, not only among chefs but also New York foodies. And the market is far from saturated, so more indoor farms will likely arrive soon, growers say. With luck, you may go strawberry picking in your building’s basement next winter.