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From Hipster Hobby to Booming Business

Ethan Fletcher headshot
Ethan Fletcher / Jun 11, 2021
Food
2020 positioned the urban farming movement to go mainstream.

Until recently, the idea that urban farming would be anything more than a way for well-off Brooklynites to grow their own organic kale seemed far-fetched. Today, in large part because of the pandemic, these once trendy agricultural techniques have taken on a new, more substantive role in the lives of people across the globe.

A wide variety of factors has set the stage for this emergent industry to find a place in the new economy. These include: changing consumer preferences, rising populations around the globe, the impacts of climate change and, perhaps the most important factors, new technological advancements and the rise in—and growing awareness of—food insecurity.

Feeding America estimates that in the US alone, the number of food-insecure Americans rose to about 13 percent of the US population, or 42 million people, as a result of the coronavirus.

The Tech Is Getting Better, and Fast

One of the many unexpected byproducts of living with the coronavirus for over a year is its acceleration of the forces making urban farming more feasible. Existing small indoor farms started taking advantage of selling online, directly and locally, to consumers and restaurants. Platforms like WeFarm—which raised $11 million last spring—are becoming more popular than ever. Similar services will no doubt also begin to compete in this space.

Infarm, a vertical farming startup based in Berlin, Germany, recently announced its new “high-capacity, automated, modular Growing Center,” a combination of local farm and distribution center that can generate the equivalent amount of crops of 10,000 m2 of farmland, (roughly 2.5 acres), with up to 400 times higher efficient food production than soil-based agriculture. Infarm’s growing centers are made up of dozens of modular farming units, each standing 10–18 meters high with a 25 square-meter footprint.

The company’s network of vertical farms uses cloud computing and machine learning to gather and process more than 50,000 growth, color and spectral data points for each plant, then uses that data to optimize yield and quality while cutting production costs. Infarm has also partnered with many of the heavy hitters in the grocery retail business including Whole Foods, Kroger and Aldi, adding modular units that grow food directly to the aisles of these stores.

Infarm and companies like it are also working to solve one of the greatest drawbacks of vertical farming: the lack of produce diversity available to farmers. Currently with Infarm, users can only grow herbs and leafy greens, but the company is serious about expanding that catalogue, with plans to use the $100 million it recently raised to add more produce and vegetables like mushrooms and chili peppers.

Some analysts project that the vertical farming market alone—just one piece of the urban / small-scale farming sector—will increase from a $709 million industry in 2020 to $1.5 billion by 2030.

Economic Hardship Is Creating Opportunities for Growth

Public-private partnerships, nonprofits and local governments are also looking to invest in more traditional outdoor urban farming techniques utilizing rooftops and community garden spaces. Initiatives like the Manguinhos vegetable garden project in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro may become models. However, it is the newer methods of urban farming that have the greatest potential to simultaneously address food shortages and increase economic security within local communities.

Brooklyn, NY and Jersey City, NJ, are also implementing proposals to increase agricultural production in urban spaces. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams outlined a new vision for urban agriculture as a way to tackle not only unemployment and food insecurity but also climate change and health. “We see the revitalization and expansion of urban agriculture as a key component to unlock the economic growth and employment opportunities we need for healthier constituents, and ultimately, a healthier planet.”

In June 2020 Jersey City, NJ planned the launch of the “first-in-the-nation Inner City Vertical Farming Program.” The program will build 10 vertical farms throughout the city in senior centers, schools, public housing complexes and municipal buildings, and the city hopes to generate 19,000 pounds of produce each year. The food will be free to residents and students if they participate in healthy eating workshops.

“It is clear that the [COVID-19] virus has had a disproportionate impact on people with pre-existing heart conditions, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes which is directly linked to a person’s diet, and as a result we feel it is more important than ever to focus on food access and education,” said Jersey City mayor Steven M. Fulop, who shares the view of Brooklyn’s Eric Adams that urban farming is a solution to more than just food insecurity. Since the greatest barrier to entry into indoor and vertical farming is startup cost, the introduction of subsidies, government programs and grants are a critical catalyst.

The Agrarian Economy of 2041

Because of these new technologies and programs, the cities of the future could look very different from those of today. Powered by the new technologies accelerated during the COVID era and government subsidies, many major American cities have budding agrarian industries within city limits, including San Francisco, New York City and Chicago. While these new urban farms will not be able to replace widely-used large-scale farming practices any time soon, they can still have a sizable impact. They will supplement the need for fresh produce, massively decrease America’s food miles and, with the help of retailers and the federal government, have the added benefit of hastening the agriculture industry’s transition to carbon-neutral farming practices. Cities and communities will become more food secure, with fresher produce options for everyone.

As these government-led programs see success, larger institutions like colleges and universities, hospitals and large corporate HQs will join in. Corporate-run vertical farms’ produce will be available in cafeterias for purchase by employees, and will eventually move into local community shops and restaurants. The Google campus in Mountain View California already has a 40-foot retrofitted shipping container called the “Leafy Green Machine” that grows lettuce and other produce for onsite consumption. Large-scale infrastructure and city planning will also begin to incorporate the goals of creating more eco-friendly indoor farms and retrofitting existing spaces to grow produce.

The interior of a Leafy Green Machine From Freight Farms

By 2041 the New York City skyline may resemble a set from a science fiction movie, with open-air farms on rooftops and glass enclosures housing hydroponic farms on the tops and the sides of buildings. Small community-managed vertical or hydroponic farms will pop up on once empty lots. Greenhouse-style extensions built onto the highline garden zones will be covered with nutrition-dense produce, leafy greens and herbs. In all of these spaces new sensors powered by AI and other new technologies will work with urban farmers to maximize yield and minimize environmental impact and cost. Bodegas will have “locally grown” produce sections on nearly every street corner.

What we’re seeing today in urban farming is just the beginning. The new agrarian economy is on its way.