Urban Farming Technologies Crop Up in Homes, Restaurants

How do you obtain the freshest, locally grown produce in a big city? For an increasing number of urbanites, the answer is to grow it yourself.

Cam MacKugler can help. MacKugler was at the recent Food Loves Tech event in Brooklyn, New York showing off Seedsheets, roll-out fabric sheets embedded with seed-filled pods.

The sheets are placed atop soil in a home planter or an outdoor garden. When watered, the pods dissolve and plants sprout in 10 days (for pea shoots) to 70 days (for dragon carrots).

The seed groupings on any given Seedsheet provide ingredients for specific dishes like salads or tacos. Pricing starts at $15 for pre-made sheets and go up to $100 for custom outdoor sheets measuring 1.2 by 2.4 meters.

“Someone that’s never gardened before might say, ‘I want to know where my food comes from but I don’t know how to do it, but I like salads so I’m going to buy the salad kit,’ ” said MacKugler, Seedsheet’s CEO and founder.

Efforts like Seedsheet come as consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from and are more interested in socially and environmentally responsible growing methods.

MacKugler told VOA that most of the company’s sales come from urban millennials.

Comparing Seedsheets to meal kit delivery companies like Blue Apron, MacKugler said Seedsheet took an experiential and educational approach to gardening, while making it user-friendly for customers.

“I view it as a way to not only help them grow food, but also help grow their skill sets of knowing how to curate their food, how to actually bring food from seed to supper. It’s a life skill,” said MacKugler, “It’s the same thing that you get from using Blue Apron and learning how to cook.”

Consumers aren’t giving up on the convenience and low cost of packaged foods, but new products and technologies are playing a bigger role in helping them understand where their food comes from.

“Consumer education is really progressing,” said Nicole Baum, senior marketing and partnerships manager at Gotham Greens, a New York-based provider of hydroponically grown produce.

Baum said consumers were less familiar with the term “hydroponics,” growing plants in water instead of soil, when Gotham Greens started in 2011. Perceptions have since changed, and she has seen an increase in competing companies.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot more people within the space from when we first started, which is awesome,” said Baum. “I think it’s really great that other people are coming into the space and looking for ways to use technology to have more productive, efficient growth.”

Gotham Greens provides rooftop-grown leafy greens and herbs to supermarkets and top-ranked restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, which uses seasonal vegetables but also depends on the reliability of produce from urban hydroponic farms.

“When we write our menus, we know that there are staples that we can continue using,” said Gramercy Tavern sous chef Kyle Goldstein.

Companies like Smallhold were also on hand at the Food Loves Tech event to promote their mushroom mini-farms — self-contained, vertical farm units that are intended for use in commercial kitchens.

Smallhold’s mini-farms are installed and serviced by the company at restaurants, with chefs harvesting mushrooms directly on-site. Hannah Shufro, operations lead at Smallhold, said the mini-farms minimize the environmental footprint that comes with transporting and packaging produce for delivery.

“A lot of chefs these days, I think, are more concerned with sustainability” and have always been concerned with freshness, she said.

Shufro noted that produce starts to lose its nutritional value from the moment it’s picked or harvested. “When you’re harvesting food right out of a system that’s growing on-site, it does not get fresher than that,” she said.

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