How One Bold Company Is Rethinking The Way We Grow Vegetables

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The way we grow, process, consume, and think about food is always changing. The vast majority of the foods we eat in the US is comes from far away — shipped on carbon-burping trucks while requiring constant refrigeration. These foodstuffs are often grown in the most economically expedient way possible, with pesticides and growth agents that are worth being wary of. It’s not ideal. This coupled with a massive surge of people moving into cities means we’ve distanced ourselves dramatically from our food sources. We no longer know our food the way we used to.

This is a big deal. Feeding people in a big city is a monumental task. For the most part, livestock and agriculture have been exorcised from urban life. That means the food we eat comes with a certain number of ‘miles.’ It needs extra preserving and chemical or biological protections for elongated growth cycles and transport. This all affects the quality of our food, especially vegetables. And since we are unlikely to start flooding out of urban centers anytime soon to live in the country, we need to come up with better ways to grow our food in general and in cities specifically.

If human history has proven anything, however, it’s that when crises arise, innovation takes over. Already, we’re seeing new companies combining science and tech to move the needle in the right direction. Companies like INFARM — which builds stackable, hydroponic grow systems that can be installed directly into supermarkets, restaurants, and even homes (eventually).

INFARM is more than just a simple build out by a couple of hydroponics geeks, it’s a comprehensive system that utilizes plant scientists, roboticists, industrial designers, IT wizards, architects, futurists, and chefs to build a product that maximizes produce on an industrial scale, for the highest quality product grown in an expedient and carbon neutral way. From all sides, it sounds like a win.

Intrigued, we dropped into INFARM’s flagship facilities in a converted warehouse in Berlin to dig a little deeper into what’s going on. Co-founder Guy Golanska sat down with us at a huge wooden table in a side hall, under a wall of cascading plants. Golanska has only been in operation for four years, and it’s apparent that their growth is already spiking. Golanska told us how he and his brother Erez, along with their friend Osnat Michaeli, started out by building a small hydroponic based and LED driven system in their apartment. Golanksa was convinced that after “harvesting fresh vegetables on a snowy day in February” they had something the world needed. Golanksa relays that they knew the “micro-applications” of growing your own food since they already did it at home. Now it was time to investigate taking this sort of system to “a macro level to take urban farming further.” INFARM was born.

On the surface, this all seems extremely complex. We are not all horticulturalists. Much less, living in a city means that time is already stretched thin with commutes and so forth. What INFARM’s system present is a hands-off way to grow the best vegetables imaginable. INFARM builds the systems, installs them, and then provides onsite support to keep the operations up and running (including regular cleaning and maintenance). Their philosophy portends that if consumers see these operations in restaurants and grocery stores it will begin to pique the average person’s interest and eventually normalize the whole process. Meanwhile, chefs and grocers are gaining access to a system that grows far superior products than any import can match.

The system INFARM has invented relies on LED lighting, hydroponics, and air flow. What sets this system apart from, say, you hitting up your local grow shop and jerry-rigging your own is science, precision, and an R&D department that is blazing a path in the urban farming arena. One of the biggest advantages to INFARM’s devices is a rotating base that allows the user to harvest plants every single day. They’ve based their patented design on Fibonacci numbers found in sunflower spirals. The innermost plants are the newest while the outermost plants are ready to harvest. The LED’s are mathematically calibrated to produce specific colors of light that will enhance not only growth speed but the flavors as well. Each unit also has a water pump and filtration system that allows fertilizer to be applied in such specific ways that each plant will invariably reach its full potential with every grow without fail.

Golanska proudly tells us that “the grow ops have an amazing ability to enhance flavor, viability, and nutritional value while making the production of these plants environmentally sound.” Compound that by the fact that these plants are grown on site and require no extra transportation and you have something close to a miracle of science, math, and engineering.

INFARM has already been installed in restaurants around Berlin to massive success. The novelty of a restaurant decorated with tray after tray of violet glowing shelving, stocked with greenery is enough to draw in customers. Then they try the food and it’s invariably good and fresh.

Remember the idea of food ‘miles’? That number becomes, essentially, zero.

Another huge get for INFARM was the installation of a grow room in Metro (Germany’s answer to Costco). The INFARM set up allows shoppers to sample the fresh produce being grown and buy it on the spot. Metro’s Chairman of the Board, Olaf Koch’s excitement for the new world of produce was evident when he talked about using INFARM to “show people that you can grow plants inside of a building.” Koch excitedly continued by noting “you can do it with less water consumption … and with no pesticides.”

Finally, if you’re still not convinced Koch breaks it down to the taste. “You’re literally eating a plant at its absolute best when it’s plucked from the pot. It’s as close to grazing as we’ll ever get.”

It’s really easy to get excited about this living in an urban area that has its shit together. Berlin, after all, is a very eco-driven city with a progressive electorate. It’s a place where you can choose what energy source you use when you sign up for electricity — that is, you can choose to live off of solar and wind energy and pay for that cost, or you can choose to live off coal-based energy and pay that cost. But, let’s take a step back. The uninterrupted energy required to run a hydroponic grow operation is real. And that’s going to be a barrier to the expansion of these sort of systems into underdeveloped corners of the world.

Evan Marks over at The Ecology Center touched on this in a recent interview along with Uproxx Life managing editor Steve Bramucci about lab-based food and grow ops that take our food growing cultures indoors. In that podcast conversation, Marks puts it this way, “This is anti-nature. I’m very much an ambassador for the earth. And hydroponics is synthesized environment for growing.” Marks explains that “it usually consists of indoor and one of the great technologies we have access to is the sun. So… let’s eliminate that?”

Marks continues by pointing out the use of plastics and inorganic fertilizer makes indoor hydroponic systems feel fake and overly manufactured. And he’s right that plastics have to be molded and engines have to be machined as opposed to focusing all of that energy on growing plants outside in the natural environment as sustainable and successful as possible with the tools the earth and the sun already provide.

While Marks does make a good point about the unnatural aspects of indoor grow operations, it still doesn’t address the lack of viable places to grow this much produce in an urban environment with zero transport footprint and no pesticides. INFARM’s co-founder and CMO Osnat Michaeli asserts that INFARM isn’t the average hydroponic grow operation and he has the numbers to back that claim up. He tells Uproxx that “by minimizing energy usage for transportation and refrigeration, INFARM’s produce can be up to 10 times more environmentally friendly.”

Michaeli then drops some serious numbers, “for example, here in Berlin, the CO2 footprint of INFARM grown lettuce is just 0.350kg compared to up to 3.7kg for lettuce imported from Spain.” And you might be saying, “Sure, that’s Europe.” But it’s true of America as well where a head of lettuce has a bigger carbon footprint than bacon.

In the end, there’s a time and place for everything. There needs to be an improvement in outdoor agriculture as Evan Marks wants and works towards. At the same time, indoor hydroponic grow operations are going to start filling in gaps in the market, especially in places where sustainability in urban areas is at the forefront of people’s minds. INFARM is already going global with the efficient and stellar produce their stackable systems grow. So, you’ll be seeing them soon if you live in a city.

At the end of it, INFARM is taking the simple idea of growing some plants indoors and using a deep bench of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, tech wizards, and a few chefs to perfect a system that’ll amaze even the nay-sayers and bring a better quality product directly to your plate every single day. That’s worth rooting for.

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