While “windowsill to table” hasn’t exactly caught on with the vast realm of food bloggers and foodies, one of the newest parts of the tech-inspired food revolution involves regular, everyday city folk becoming farmers. Elements of this movement include indoor gardening, vertical gardening and turning your small deck or rooftop into a lush patch of fertile land that yields everything from arugula to Green Zebra Tomatoes.
Urban farming has a place for everyone. Social entrepreneurs like Kimbal Musk, with urban farm-accelerator Square Roots, and Irving Fain, with his IoT-driven Bowery Farming, are jumping into this space. They are focused on testing aquaponics ecosystems which use LED grow lights and less water by using smaller spaces than conventional methods. These efforts produce top-quality veggies sold to restaurants and directly to consumers. For the home gardener, choices include all-in-one IoT-based indoor growing kits from companies such as Aerogarden and tower-garden setups from startup NutriTower.
On the more DIY side of things, consumers that want fresh herbs and greens can dust off an old aquarium. You can start with the purchase of an aquaponics kit like those from Aquasprouts or Grove, or by simply mail ordering some non-GMO seeds and taking an old cottage cheese container from the trash. From there you add dirt and water to your seeds and soon you can watch your microgreens take bloom. If you encounter a stumble along the way, there are countless YouTube videos to help you along. More sophisticated help is available with some smart gardening assistants such as Growerbot to keep track of your watering and soil conditions.
As the space matures, urban and indoor farming are likely to have different trajectories. It is unlikely consumers will move from growing herbs and microgreens indoors to buying a 100-acre farm in Iowa. It also is a longshot that hipster gardeners will buy vacant buildings and convert them the huge vertical farms with robotic water and harvesting devices. For this crowd, it’s more about crowing over those fresh sorrel greens placed on a salad for the next dinner party.
For social entrepreneurs, the endgame is different. Most visionaries in this space come from other areas (primarily technology) and bring science, fresh ideas and a sense of community to their projects. But these techfarmers also bring a keen sense of business and realize their sustainability will need to include some revenue-generating ideas. Some, such as the Square Roots collective, offer home or office delivery of greens, while Smallhold builds indoor farms onsite for restaurants to provide chefs with ultra-fresh mushrooms.
While some supermarkets may be content to hope IoT-indoor farming fizzles out, the German chain Metro refuses to bury its head in the sand. In Berlin, the company houses an Infarm installation at the end of one of its grocery aisles. And it’s not just for show; fresh greens and herbs from Infarm are for sale in the store.
The biggest threat urban and indoor farming poses is to the national meal kit business. One of the mantras for this new breed of growers is to focus on consumers and restaurant in a 10-mile radius. Serving a local community is part of the marketing message from entrepreneurs in urban farming. The vertical move, adding other local food artisans to their retail packages, could result in the sort of immediacy which the Blue Aprons and Hello Fresh cannot match—at least for now.