Growing Up: Vertical Farming Comes of Age.

Farmshelf Pioneers the Future of Hyper-Local Produce.


In future conceptions of cities stretching back to utopian architectural visions of the 1960s, the geometric increase of density and its attendant verticality was often yoked to the ability of structural forms to contain all elements of a working economy. Residences, industry, and commerce were imagined to be interwoven into complex superstructures of symbiosis, self-enclosed ecosystems. (Children of the 1980s might remember the "Arcologies" of SimCity 2000; a parallel thought experiment may be A/D/O Workspace member Huy Bui's "Plant-In City," featured here.)

Agriculture was always a bit of a binding point, as the variety of infrastructure and resources it required remained daunting throughout the twentieth century. As the Corbusian model of integrated social became thought of as discredited, much of this fertile theorizing fell out of favor.

But in recent years there has been a critical mass of technological improvements and increased attention to food supplies that have reawakened these dreams and brought them, in a matter of years, from paper architecture to functioning prototypes. Advances on a geometric scale in agricultural understanding, transistor design and decentralized automation have coincided with a revolution in startup financing. It's a renaissance for urban farming.

"We've gone about taking the hardest parts of growing and automated them," said Andrew Shearer, co-founder of Urban-X venture Farmshelf. "Taking technologies from different industries -- everything from LED lighting to time-lapse photography." In contrast to massive, urban planning-scale projects like AeroFarms in New Jersey and Singapore's Sky Greens, Farmshelf is human-scale interior farm. "It's an intersection between an appliance, gardening, and a personal farm," Shearer said. Their enclosed-glass display sideboard recalls a modern, "smart-tech" dining room hutch. Farmshelf says a single unit is capable of producing a hundred heads of lettuce in a month, and yet it can still easily be imagined inside a restaurant space. Produce really couldn't get more local.

"When we look at what that's going to enable it's more efficient crop yields. Distributed farming, at scale, in cities," Shearer said in an interview with a Beth Comstock, a VP of GE. "Suddenly you're going to be able to grow high-quality produce wherever you are." Projects like Farmshelf are already gaining traction as educational devices in secondary schools, and fluidly achieve the dream of combining hands-on interactivity with lesson-planning in botany and real-life plant cultivation -- not to mention improving the nutritional merit of the cafeteria.

Three specialized units are currently in operation at the Great Northern Food Hall, Claus Meyer’s multi-venue food service space in Grand Central Terminal. Meyer, who is on the advisory board of Farmshelf, is also the proprietor of Norman, for whom a new unit, in aluminum and plastic polycarbonate, provides bronze fennel for oysters and dill for salads. The trio at Great Northern Food Hall are clad in white oak to match the restaurant’s aesthetic and produce microgreens, a variety of basils, red shiso, and spicy greens like mizuna and arugula. The Food Hall’s chefs say the hydroponic units supply the majority of its herbs -- and have increased their ability to use otherwise prohibitively expensive microgreens.

"We want a connection to our food," Shearer said. "And it's going to enable us to grow plants where they're going to be consumed.”

Images courtesy A/D/O and Meyers USA.

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