5 Things I Learned at Agritecture’s Commercial Urban Farming Class

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By Farmer Nick

There’s nothing that embodies New York City’s urban agriculture scene more than waking up at 7:00am on a chilly Saturday in February and traveling to the heart of Bushwick to learn about growing kale in a basement. This might be the most Brooklyn-sounding activity ever, but it’s what we aspiring urban farmers must do to learn how we can save our food system and our planet. (We’re kinda like the Avengers of vegetables just way more nerdy and without the cool superpowers).

I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into Agritecture’s renovated garage with hydroponic systems and plants sprouting up in every corner, but I knew that I was going to learn from some of THE best in the business. The Commercial Urban Farming class was taught by members of the Agritecture Consulting team, a team of urban farm experts that offer consulting services for entrepreneurs, companies and cities, and I was there to discover how to design my own farm, create a viable business plan, and positively impact my local food system. Count me in.

If solving the world’s greatest environmental and food problems of our time doesn’t make you feel like a superhero, then stop reading now and go buy some produce that was grown 2,000 miles away, tastes like cardboard, and spoils in three days. It’s time to change the world one hydroponically-gown veggie at a time, and here are the top five things I learned to help make this sustainable (and delicious) vision of the future a reality.

1. Our current agricultural system is BROKEN

Grocery store produce averages about 1,500 food miles before it reaches your plate. 1,500 MILES!!! That’s the equivalent of driving from NYC to Dallas, and it’s no surprise when you realize that most of the produce we love was grown in California or Mexico. This amount of shipping and travel takes a tremendous toll on our environment in the form of increased CO2 emissions, and by the time the food reaches the shelf, it has already lost 45% of its nutritional value. This needs to change ASAP.   

2. Indoor farming is the answer

The stats above may seem ominous, but hydroponics is here to help. Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants without soil, which allows growers to grow anywhere, use water and nutrients more efficiently, grow more in a given space, and produce crops faster. Not only is it super efficient, but it has many positive impacts across our food, environmental, and socioeconomic landscapes. Hydroponics for the W!

Economic

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  • Year-round production independent of climate

  • Faster growth rates

  • Local food is of higher value

Social

  • Creates jobs locally.

  • Healthier food available to local communities.

  • Positive physical & mental health outcomes (biophilia)

Environmental

  • Increased land, water, and nutrient use efficiency.

  • Reduced transportation & refrigeration energy use. (Lower carbon footprint).

  • Reduced food waste.


3. Greenhouses and vertical Farms are very different

The primary difference between greenhouses and vertical farms is the energy source. For greenhouses, the energy source comes naturally from the sun, while vertical farms require energy from LED light spectrums. There are pros and cons to each model, and I have outlined them below:

Greenhouse Cons

  • Single layer production

  • High opex during winter months

  • Less labor efficient at small-medium scale

Vertical Farm Cons

  • High capex

  • High opex

  • High heat output and humidity

  • Large carbon footprint

Greenhouse Pros

  • Lower capex

  • Interior system flexibility

  • Lower opex (the sun is free)

Vertical Farm Pros

  • High density production

  • Close control over growing environment

  • High labor use efficiency

  • Ultra-local production

Depending on the market in which the greenhouse is operating, the annual ROI on a greenhouse is 30% while vertical farms only have an ROI of 11%. If you have the space and the optimal location, greenhouses are the way to go.


4. Insect warfare is encouraged

Biosecurity and eliminating pesticide use is critical to every indoor farm. However, the indoor environment is a fragile ecosystem that can be brutally disrupted at any moment, which is why limiting outside contaminants and harmful pests is critical to the farm’s safety standards.


To help combat some of these harmful pests, it is oftentimes encouraged to introduce beneficial insects into the farm environment to maintain order. A great example is the common lady bug. Wait… the lady bug? You mean that super cute bug that is supposed to bring you good luck if it lands on you? Yup. That’s the one. Don’t be fooled, these polka-dotted cuties are stone cold aphid assassins, and you can buy them in bulk on Amazon. Thanks for making my Christmas list complete Jeff Bezos.

5. The urban farming community is ready to save the world

I’ve never been around more diverse, talented, and badass entrepreneurs in my life. Each of my classmates had a unique story to tell, and they came from all over the country (Philly, North Carolina, New York) and the world (Brazil, Canada) to learn from Agritecture. Some were starting their own urban farms, others were building a sustainable “agrihood”, and a few just wanted to learn about the industry, but all were incredibly inspiring and committed to the cause. We have a long way to go, but if this group was representative of the future leaders and innovators of this food movement, I am confident we are in good hands.


Huge thanks to the Agritecture team for leading the charge. Let’s keep growing together.


Farmer Nick