One of the more promising urban-farm concepts is not in New York, Los Angeles, or any other major city. It’s in Charlottesville, Virginia, courtesy of one University of Virginia alum and a very small team of employees.
Recent grad Alexander Olsen started Babylon Micro-Farms in 2016, as part of the UVA student entrepreneurial clubhouse, HackCville. An early prototype won $6,500 from Green Initiatives Funding Tomorrow, part of the UVA student council.
Now, Olsen and six other employees are working to get the hydroponic farms inside the homes of consumers, billing them as “the next generation home appliance.”
The concept is pretty straightforward. You start by selecting crops from Babylon’s online menu. Pre-seeded plant packs are then delivered to your door. Right now, pod pack choices include: wellness (kale), spicy peppers, pesto, a mini romaine crop, herbs, edible flowers, a cocktail mix, Asian greens, and arugula.
Once seed pods are set up, the farm regulates itself—you may occasionally have to top off the water or nutrients, but otherwise, the process is automated. A corresponding app provides live data about crop health, notifies users when water and nutrients are needed, and tells you when it’s time to harvest your crops. Once the latter is done, you can order another round of crops and start the process all over again. For the extra-ambitious (and restaurants), the app can control multiple farms at once.
One thing setting Babylon Mirco-Farms apart from other urban farming products is its emphasis on visual design. To that end, the system takes the form of a table with a UV light hanging overhead, and is small compared to its industrial counterparts: 6 feet wide by 3 feet deep and 6 feet tall. And instead of seeing wires and buttons, everywhere, pinewood hides those operational things and makes the farm as much a stylish conversation piece as it is a food supply.
The company isn’t alone in their mission to marry urban farming with, uh, urban style. The Ava Byte also uses soil-less grow pods, which come in a slick, space-age-looking container that would blend into a lot of modern kitchen designs. Verdical calls itself “a living food appliance” and is also small enough to fit into most homes. Farmshelf is more geared at serving restaurants and retail spaces, but as of November, they were considering a move to more residential markets.
UVA has given Olsen and Co. considerable support for the project, from grants to advice about the next phase of business. Farms are also installed at university dining halls, where students are encouraged to harvest what they need. According to Olsen, the farms are “a massive hit” amongst the students.
Babylon is now focused on bringing the farms to consumers outside of universities. Currently, a the micro-farm farm goes for $1,799. Pre-order one here. East Coasters get free shipping.
The company also wants want to eventually offer a smaller system for less than $1,000, which would be a hit for both cost-conscious consumers and those of us living in shoebox-sized apartments. Neither price tag is pocket change, but I suspect with the right amount of dedication, an investment in one of these would pay for itself pretty fast. Stay tuned.
Photo credit: Dan Addison, University Communications, UVA