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A Company in Manhattan’s Financial District is Bringing Rare, Local Herbs to NYC Chefs

I think it’s safe to say that Urban Farming has been having a moment for a while now. It’s not hard to see why: the percent of the population that lives in cities has been climbing pretty much since antiquity. This trend has reached its highest form in Singapore, a country of 5 million people that boasts a 100% urbanization rate.  But, the US is not far behind, with 80% of our current population living in cities.
This massive urban population has necessitated a change in the global food system– a change that the urban masses have become acutely aware of in recent years.

Endless exposes about the negative side of commercial farming, concerns about sustainability, and the nebulous question of just where our food comes from and what it has in it has led to a renewed interest in local agriculture– an old-world tradition that is constantly being reinvented by innovators. While for some this change has been characterized by altering consumption and shopping patterns, others are looking to change the nature of urban space itself.

Urban farming can take a variety of forms, and nowhere is that more apparent than NYC. Some elements are adaptations of classic ideas– windowsill herb gardens in a city where no one has room for vegetable patches. Others are marketing hooks, the now ubiquitous trendy restaurants with their own herb gardens. Some projects are more ambitious, like the rooftop farm of Brooklyn Grange, which produce 50,000 tons of produce annually. But, one of the most intriguing new forms of urban farming come in the form of vertical and greenhouse farming, which involves farming indoors, year-round utilizing space that would otherwise be wasted.

Much of the recent press about urban farming has been focused on large scale companies. Local growers like Gotham Greens, who are focused on supplying the immediate salad needs of New Yorkers, are springing up around the country. These operations hope to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing how far the greens travel, in some cases by hundreds of miles. But, these operations are increasingly sophisticated, large, and expensive. (A new vertical farm that was just finished in Newark is supposed to be the largest of its kind, and it cost $30 million to build.) Still, these giant operations aren’t the only game in town. Smaller, more accessible operations are popping up all around the country– including a new venture in the heart of Manhattan’s Financial District (probably the last place that springs to mind when one thinks of farming) called Farm One.

Right, now Farm One’s operation consists of a tiny 500 square foot room in the Institute of Culinary Education. The Institute of Culinary Education, originally The French Culinary Institute, recently relocated to the financial district– an unlikely spot for culinary greatness, but a location that came with state-of-the-art facilities and plenty of space for hydroponic gardening.

Artificial light, nutrients extracted from natural sources, and a mechanism to feed the plants in a water mixture. Like any kind of farming, from there it is just a matter of waiting.

Hydroponic farming is simply the practice of growing plants without soil. Hydroponic ideas stretch back centuries, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that modern technology and our knowledge of nutrients advanced enough to allow large-scale hydroponics to happen. Modern hydroponics uses a variety of methods, but the basics are simple: take a seed, and plant it in some inert medium, for example rock wool (those of us who aren’t involved with hydroponics might recognize rock wool as the rough fiber used for soundproofing and insulation). Then it’s a simple matter of replicating the elements plants need in nature. Artificial light, nutrients extracted from natural sources, and a mechanism to feed the plants in a water mixture. Like any kind of farming, from there it is just a matter of waiting.

Farm One uses relatively simple systems, including racks of plants suspended under LED lights. One of the other key draws of vertical farming is that, by stacking planters, you can effectively use one piece of land multiple times. Nutrient-enhanced water is filtered through the racks, and then recycled and pumped back up. This system helps Farm One keep their water usage as low as 10% of what a conventional farming operation would use. The system is automated, and when the water drops below a certain point, the reservoir automatically refills. When the plant outgrows it’s container it can be replanted, sometimes several times, until it is ready to harvest. Each stand of plants has different light and chemical requirements. These are carefully recorded, and each plant has a barcode attached to it, so with a sweep of a smartphone the staff can check to see a plant’s vital specs.

Farm One keeps their water usage as low as 10% of what a conventional farming operation would use.

The plants that Farm One uses are themselves unique– for example, they don’t have the space to grow commercial lettuce. Instead, they have hit on a different strategy, one that perfectly ties into their surroundings and location in one of the food capitals of the world. Farm One is growing specialty herbs, ones that are native to all different parts of the world. The number of plants they grow now numbers somewhere around 300. These include workhorse herbs like basil (Farm One lists 16 unique basils on their website), to more obscure herbs like garlic mustard, which I had never heard of but turns out to be delicious.

This also means Farm One is relying on their consumers to be a little more discerning then most of us. New York is full of chefs who are famed for their perfection. Farm One’s first client was the legendary Daniel Boulud, but since then they have started selling to a veritable Who’s-Who of high-end restaurants. These chefs recognize the difference that fresh herbs can make in their cooking. But, even for them, finding a quality supplier can be hard, as many of these herbs only grow in very specific areas and have to be flown in at great cost.

Farm One is operating on a tiny scale, but it has a few significant advantages when it comes to growing rare and delicate herbs. Because it is inside, they have complete control over the temperature, humidity, and don’t have to deal with the vagaries of a natural climate. Combined with a precise ability to give plants as much nutrients as they need, and hydroponics can be faster than conventional farming. But, one of their most important advantages is taste. Plants can lose as much as 90% of their nutrients, and thus their flavor, in the first 24 that they are out of the ground. The Farm One website proudly states that they are within a 30-minute bike ride of most of New York Cities restaurants, whereas much of the other specialty herb purveyors are 30 hours away, even with the lightning-fast delivery systems of 2017.

Palates change slowly, but the demand for hothouse tomatoes and fresh greens has shown that once people taste the real thing there is no going back.

In a world where condos in Brooklyn are touting their rooftop gardens to differentiate themselves, our exposure to urban farming will only grow. We can only hope that our access to fresh herbs will grow that that exposure. Palates change slowly, but the demand for hothouse tomatoes and fresh greens has shown that once people taste the real thing there is no going back. Farm One is hoping to do the same thing with our awareness of the power of fresh herbs.

Farm One is currently in the process of expanding to a second space, where they hope to grow even more herbs and flowers, while continuing to educate New York clients about the potency and variety of plants they can produce locally. I wish them luck.

For more information about Farm One, visit the company’s website.

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