Brooklyn / Environment / Food and drink / Startups

There’s an indoor, windowless farm in Bushwick that produces the best vegetables you’ve ever tasted

The team of founders behind VertiCulture Farms is trying to prove that their model can be scaled.

The VertiCulture team. From left: Fred Constantino, Ryan Morningstar, Jacob Hill, Miles Crettien and Pete Spartos. (Photo by Tyler Woods)
There’s a farm in Bushwick growing the most delicious herbs and vegetables you’ve ever tasted with maximal efficiency and virtually no waste and it’s in the top floor of an anachronistic office building in a room with no windows.

It’s called VertiCulture Farms, and the process is called aquaponics. Tanks of about 240 fish produce waste that is pumped through troughs with basil and arugula floating on what look like burlap rafts. The plants, which grow under LED grow lamps, suck the nitrate-rich nutrients out of the water, filtering the waste out, providing clean water that goes back to the fish tanks.

“We don’t add anything to the water,” explained Pete Spartos, one of the founding members of VertiCulture Farms. “No chemicals, we just rely on the fish.” 

What this system allows for is plants which are fed a tremendously nutritious diet, and which can grow unmolested by the elements. Since the plants grow on floating troughs, they can be stacked one on top of each other, with one three feet off the ground, one six feet, etc., etc.
This vertical agriculture, combined with the fact that the plants don’t need to be grown in rows, creates a much higher density per square foot than would be the case on an old-fashioned farm. Spartos said they’re growing 450 square feet of plants in 350 square feet.

Baby arugula

Baby arugula sprouts from floating burlap rafts. (Photo by Tyler Woods)

“This is a controlled environment,” one of the founders, Ryan Morningstar said. “Nothing touches this arugula, it just grows. There’s no dirt getting thrown around or wind. Those elements change the product and reduce the shelf life.” 

The group said that, anecdotally, they’ve found their basil can last in a fridge for at least a week longer than basil bought even from a farmers market.

Then there’s the fact that this operation is taking place on the top floor of the old Pfizer building on Flushing Avenue in Bushwick. The group sells its basil to nearby markets and restaurants, and its proximity to its buyers is a huge advantage.

“Even with local farms from upstate, it’s a day to pick [the produce] and then three hours on a truck, which may be refrigerated or may not be, then onto the shelf,” explained Miles Crettien, another cofounder. “Currently 40 percent of food that’s harvested out of the field is wasted. That’s ridiculous. There’s essentially no waste with this.”

We can bring really fresh natural food to city communities that don’t have that now.

The plant rafts are made of burlap stretched across a floating frame sprinkled with seeds. Along the troughs, the plants are in different states of life. One group is made of tiny seeds with the first white stem cracking out of it, upward into the light.
On a nearby raft, the basil is so big and so thick and planted essentially at random so that it resembles a miniature version of a jungle, with thick green leaves splayed in every direction. And they taste amazing.
Spartos pinched off a sprig of arugula while we were talking and ate it. I did the same, and it was startling, the difference between the arugula I was eating and that which I’ve eaten my whole life. The flavor was immensely more powerful, with a mustardy aftertaste. It was like the Platonic ideal of what arugula is supposed to be, and of which all arugula otherwise is a facsimile. Real food, man!
These robust plants will soon be harvested and delivered to nearby buyers within hours. That’s another benefit the group sees in the project: they are where people live. And particularly in Bushwick, they are where people are underserved fresh, chemical-free produce, they can help improve nutrition.
“We can bring really fresh natural food to city communities that don’t have that now,” Morningstar said. “Ultimately what you’re seeing is a lack of nutrients and water in a lot of places in the country and we think as resources grow scarcer this is much more efficient. Look at what’s happening in California. We lose water only to evaporation.”

The group does have costs, however.
The electricity to power the grow lamps costs money, and the food to feed the fish costs a bit and the rent, even in the windowless roof of an old building in Bushwick, is substantial. Right now the farm’s basil is its cash crop, producing enough to cover the cost of operations. At the beginning of the year, when they set up shop, the group raised $12,000 on Indiegogo, and they’re looking to raise money again soon. All of them have full-time jobs, and they’d like to get enough to be able work less and spend more time with the farm.
As it stands, VertiCulture Farms is as much a proof of concept as anything else. By running it and fine-tuning the systems, the founders hope to show investors that their idea can work. They think that at 10,000 square feet they can produce 100,000 pounds annually of greens and herbs and 15,000 pounds of tilapia.
We’re proving a model that can be scaled,” said another cofounder, Fred Constantino.

Series: Brooklyn

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