By the time you reach for that head of lettuce at the grocery store, it's already probably traveled hundreds of miles and spent almost two weeks sitting in a truck.
But everyone likes fresh produce, so the closer your veggies are grown to your favorite supermarket or restaurant, the better. With the recent outbreak of E.coli contaminating romaine lettuce across the United States, it’s especially appealing to know that your produce has been grown nearby in a safe environment. How about a farm right on top of a grocery store in Philadelphia? Or one underground in the heart of Manhattan? Or one inside an iconic restaurant in Australia?
Hyper-local urban farming is providing some consumers with instant access to seriously fresh produce. It’s also a way for restaurants and food suppliers to save on costs, eliminating the need for expensive packaging and shipping, experts say. Tour five of the world’s coolest vertical farms in pictures below.
Farm.One’s vision is to build small indoor farms in cities around the country that provide rare herbs and produce to high-end restaurants. Their farm in the heart of Manhattan occupies 1200 square feet in a basement beneath the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Atera, which is conveniently one of their customers. All of the 20 to 25 restaurants they supply to are within a three-mile radius, making delivery possible by subway or bike.
“We have a direct connection with the chefs,” says the CEO and founder Robert Laing. “For very perishable produce like herbs and leafy greens, hyper-local vertical farming works really well. It’s literally dying the moment you cut it, and this is designed to be fresh.”
“Restaurants are important,” says Jack Griffin, the president of the indoor vertical Metropolis Farms in Philadelphia. “But not the most important, because they don’t feed the majority of people.”
Griffin is on a mission to standardize the indoor farming industry so supermarkets and communities around the world can benefit from the technology in a cost-effective and accessible way. Right now, Metropolis Farms supplies to a local grocer, Di Brunos Bros, that is less than two miles from their facility. In the future, they have plans to build a rooftop greenhouse atop a new supermarket in Philadelphia, plus indoor farms in Baltimore, Oklahoma, and as far away as India.
One advantage of their farms, says Griffin, is their proprietary technology. An adaptive lighting system allows them to grow almost any size crop, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries, and even giant sunflowers.
“It’s bigger than just food,” he explains. “We are working on growing specialty crops like wine, chocolate, and coffee. All these plants are within reach, and we can cut the cord between supply chains that are difficult to deal with. Can you imagine if you grew Napa wines in Camden, New Jersey?”
GOOD BANK, in Berlin, bills itself as the world’s first farm-to-table vertical restaurant. They grow their many of their own vegetables and salads onsite using farming system technology from another German company called INFARM. The latter’s co-founder and CEO, Erez Galonska, cites a decline in traditional farming, an increase in urban populations, and the inefficiency of the current food system as motivation for turning to vertical farming to produce food where people actually eat and live.
“INFARM is pioneering on-demand farming services to help cities become self-sufficient in their food production, while eliminating waste and reducing their environmental impact,” Galonska says.
Melbourne-based Farmwall leases indoor vertical farms the size of small bookshelves to restaurants and cafes. The farms are designed to be visually appealing, with fish tanks at the bottom supplying nutrient-rich water to the hemp media in which herbs and microgreens grow under LED lights. As part of the subscription model, urban farmers come once a week to check water levels, bring new trays of greens, and maintain the system. So far, two restaurants have signed up — Top Paddock, in the suburb of Richmond, and Higher Ground, an internationally recognized restaurant in Melbourne.
“It’s worth it to the restaurants because they get fresh produce at their fingertips and it has all the benefits of having a garden out back without any of the work,” says Serena Lee, Farmwall’s co-founder and chief communications officer.
The sky’s the limit for future venue possibilities: nursing homes, schools, hotel lobbies, businesses, homes.
“Urban farming is never going to feed the world,” Lee acknowledges. “We understand that and we’re not saying it will, but when people are able to watch their food grow onsite, it triggers an awareness of local food production. It teaches people about how technology and science can work in coherence with nature to create something super-efficient, sustainable, and beautiful.”
At the restaurant Otium in Los Angeles, a peaceful rooftop garden sits atop a structure of concrete and steel that overlooks the hustle and bustle of downtown LA. Vegetables and herbs grown on the roof include Red Ribbon Sorrel, fennel fronds, borage blossoms, nasturtium, bush basil, mustard frills, mustard greens, kale, arugula, petit leaf lettuce, and mizuna. Chef Timothy Hollingsworth delights in Otium’s ability to grow herbs that local purveyors don’t offer, like the wild Middle Eastern Za’atar he uses on grilled steak with onions and sumac.
“I don’t think this growing trend [of urban farming] is something that will be limited to a handful of restaurants,” says Hollingsworth. “Every business should be concerned with sustainability and strive to protect the environment, so I think we will be seeing more and more gardening efforts throughout the country.”
Whether a garden is vertical or horizontal, indoors or outdoors, on a roof or in a basement, tending to one provides not only fresh food, but intangible benefits as well.
“When you put your time and love into something,” says Hollingsworth, “it really makes you respect and appreciate the produce from every stage of its life.”