Do you know what it takes to create a hydroponic, indoor, organic and minimal waste farm in the bowels of a big city, where every square foot counts? You can’t consult with outdoor soil farms — no soil is used here. You can’t consult with greenhouse farms — they use soil too, even if they’re growing the same produce.
The closest farm type in comparison is a hydroponic cannabis farm, and most of them aren't yet legal. “There’s no set supply chain for culinary hydroponics. There is for cannabis and greenhouses, but not for culinary hydroponics,” said Dana Mitchell, head of operations for Farm.One.
These were some of the challenges Mitchell faced in 2017 when joining Farm.One, Manhattan’s only hydroponic farm. Her task upon hire was to build out the farm’s supply chain from scratch. Her mission: to do so in a way that was lean, but at the same time sustainable.
Her story – told at a time when startups and digital natives are disrupting industries – is a case study for how the vision that drives companies like Farm.One can be tedious to make a reality. But with a commitment and a knack for sourcing, operations and logistics, it is far from impossible.
Learning from prior experience
Mitchell joined Farm.One just before the 1,200 square-foot farm launched, after its successful 200 square-foot research and development farm opened a year earlier at the Institute of Culinary Education. Her job was to build out the Tribeca location, creating an operation that now supplies high-end restaurants like Le Turtle, Mission Chinese Food, Emily, Daniel, Atera and Jungsik with more than 100 varieties of rare herbs, microgreens and edible flowers. Each ingredient is grown to order
Though Mitchell joined Farm.One not long after graduating from Georgetown University’s undergraduate business school, she has a wealth of applicable experience. At school, she helped open a fast-casual restaurant as part of a student entrepreneurial organization. After an 18-month stint at Deloitte Consulting, she enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education, cooking at Le Turtle at night while earning a degree in restaurant management and culinary arts by day, graduating in 2017.
Working at Le Turtle, now a Farm.One client, “taught me a lot about how professional high-end restaurants run,” she said. She saw the difference in suppliers (small, regional) these restaurants use, versus what they used at the Georgetown restaurant (large, national).
Challenges in developing a hydroponic supply chain
This is not shocking: Manhattan real estate isn’t financially conducive to growing traditional vegetables which take up a lot of space and don’t sell for much.
Farm.One specializes in higher margin exotic produce, with prices ranging from 50 cents per edible flower to $40/pound for specialty basil. To build out the farm, Mitchell had to procure the right seeds, growing media, trays and nutrients, while organizing the company’s delivery, labor and operations costs.
The main challenge, she found, was in procurement. Below, a few specific examples:
Mitchell orders seeds from 62 vendors, a fair number of which are on Amazon. But sometimes seeds aren’t easy to find.
“I called six vendors today to find a nepitella seed,” Mitchell said, a cross between mint and oregano. While several seed vendors sell this Italian plant in the United States, “I have to find it for tomorrow.”
The problem is seed sales are cyclical, as outdoor soil farms typically finish planting by August or September. Seed vendors, in turn, deplete their stock. But Farm.One grows year-round and, to run a lean operation, it cannot store large quantities of seeds on-site.
Growing medium and trays
Farm.One’s focus on sustainability requires it to procure growing media and trays that can be reused.
The company uses recycled coconut husk as a growing medium, but wants it loose, instead of prefilled in disposable trays. In addition, the trays should be compostable. To find the right materials, Mitchell started buying samples and testing them in the R&D farm until they found a few that worked well.
Now, Farm.One is changing over some of their high cost disposable growing media into reusable and lower cost media. To use the trays more than once, the company is poking holes in them and looking at how quickly the trays break down when they can no longer be used, to minimize waste.
Botanicare provides Farm.One’s nutrients dissolved in water in plastic jugs. Currently the farm recycles their jugs or gives them to a neighboring kitchen for oil disposal.
Mitchell is trying to find a way to get powdered nutrients, to reduce waste, or to do a jug swap. Getting them powdered is difficult because biological nutrients following a specific organic specification don’t typically come in powdered form.
Most of Farm.One’s clients (90%) are currently less than a 30-minute bike ride from the farm. As a result, deliveries are made via bike or subway, the same day the produce is harvested. Farmhands prune, transplant and feed more than 1,000 plant sites individually. It’s a time-consuming process that’s difficult to scale.
“A lot of what we’re doing is new. It’s never been done at a scalable model,” said Mitchell.
Now, Farm.One is designing another Manhattan farm and planning to expand to 10 U.S. and international cities in the next four years. Mitchell says they ordered a robot with a vacuum arm to help automate plantings.
Customizing software to grow more crops
Growing a huge variety of crops instead of monoculture farming is complicated. That’s where their custom software system fits in.
The founder, Robert Laing has software development background, and built a computer system that’s meant to be flexible, as their products are grown to order. The lead time for microgreens is two to five weeks, while edible flowers need two to four months of lead time.
The key is data and testing. Engineers and plant scientists create plant recipes for how to grow each plant using growing medium, a nutrient blend including enzymes and beneficial bacteria, a feeding schedule (up to several times a day per plant) and LED light mix. They base the growing recipe on the number of sites and past yield data. By building up a knowledge database, the system calculates plant growth and health at different ages, to determine planting and harvesting information.
Without these decision tools for planting operations, they could not plant as many varieties. Each day, the farm hands come to work, pick up their instructions from the computer and get to work.
Running a tight … farm
The sales team reaches out to chefs when they’re planning each season’s menus, since they only grow a little “buffer” just in case, especially with flowers.
The 16 to 17 regular New York City clients place two to three orders per week, usually ranging from $100 to $400 an order. There’s some overlap in products, especially with microgreens and flowers. “Any crop could be for two to five clients,” she said.
They also sell to caterers, private chefs and Martha Stewart Living. Private chefs and caterers sometimes browse and buy, with the items harvested on the spot. They browse from the buffer as well as the permanent collection of 12 popular plants making up eight square feet of the 1,200 square-foot farm. The original R&D farm at the Institute of Culinary Education is only 200 square feet, with less than half of the space growing produce to sell. The Tribeca farm is at 85% to 90% capacity.
With items grown to order, and needing a specific lead time, backup systems are important. To prevent flood damage, they elevated the lowest plants to at least 10 inches off floor, more than the six-inch food safety law requirement. And the building has a generator in case of power loss, though Farm.One does not have its own. Given that the farm has no windows, that LED lighting and electricity is important.
The farm also diversified into agricultural tourism and events, hosting classes farm tours complete with prosecco and take-home samples, or transporting an “edible bar” of herbs and microgreens to events.
Next time you’re in a trendy Manhattan bar, when the herb snipped off the countertop plant goes into the cocktail, ask if it’s from Farm.One. The mixologists have discovered them as well.