How Distributed Agriculture Will Feed the Future
A woman in a lab coat plucks basil, cucumbers, and arugula from respective grow areas. The room is a windowless, sterile cavern — yet the plants grow like weeds, stretching upward toward their false sun: LED lights.
This image, one of a 12,000 square-foot warehouse that grows more food than 80 acres of farmland, has been lauded as the face of indoor farming — and it’s big business. According to a MarketsandMarkets report, the indoor-farming tech industry will be worth more than $40 billion by 2022. Meanwhile, the larger agriculture tech (AgTech) market is bustling with activity as entrepreneurs and investors coalesce around new ways to grow food smarter and faster. IoT sensors, crop-monitoring drones, and blockchain for better traceability have been deployed in fields and farm equipment to support the industrial supply chain we’ve come to rely on.
But what if we used this momentum to empower individuals to grow food in their homes or neighborhoods? What would the world look like if more communities had direct, immediate access to highly nutritious and perishable foods?
This distributed approach is a flavor of AgTech that focuses on increased access to small farms across a city instead of concentrating production in one particular area. It’s also central to the vision of Farmshelf founder and CEO Andrew Shearer.
Seeing is Believing
Farmshelf makes LED-hydroponic farming units equipped with camera sensors and computer vision that adjust nutrients, water, humidity, temperature, and pH levels to be able to grow produce wherever there’s a power outlet. “If you can operate a Nespresso machine and an iPhone, you can operate a Farmshelf,” confirms Shearer. The goal is to make food production so easy anyone could do it.
The team isn’t trying to replace the entire food supply system, but rather leverage frontier technology to reignite our first-hand relationship with food to encourage healthier eating habits and redefine social bonds.
When Shearer first came up with the idea of Farmshelf in 2015, he was eager to address a lack of connectivity in our food chain. Shearer was working at Pinterest at the time and noticed an uptick in users pinning food and gardening aspirations. It made perfect sense to him: “we’re all looking to know the story behind our food. It’s one thing to hear the story, but it’s another to see it.”
A bag of romaine lettuce at the store might set you back $2, but the sticker price belies the true costs of land, equipment, labor, transportation, and distribution. Nearly all food has been commoditized in this way, from the strawberries, avocados, and sweet hothouse tomatoes, to the meat, beans, soy, and dairy we consume. When Shearer began production on the first prototype in his basement, he envisioned a world where restaurants, schools, community centers, and eventually households were equipped with their own farms to grow produce.
Today, Farmshelf is scaling their business out of Newlab in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, taking advantage of the ability to rapidly prototype on-site. Their first go-to-market product can grow 160 heads of lettuce a month, 10 pounds of herbs a week, and an army of microgreens. Future iterations will include the likes of cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, and other hydroponic-friendly produce.
Changing Social Norms
Before refrigeration was common, consumers almost exclusively ate fresh, local produce. If they didn’t grow it themselves, most people knew who made their food. Later, the post-war era brought the end of rationing and the proliferation of processed ingredients. People moved to the suburbs and began frequenting grocery stores to do their shopping. Mega farms cropped up in response to demand.
Fast forward and by 2050 the global population is expected to hit 9.7 billion, creating a need to dramatically increase the amount of food we produce. Arable land is declining as a consequence of development and urban sprawl, which also presents opportunities to diversify production streams.
This could mean growing more food at the household or local level. “Distributed agriculture is about using existing controlled environments or outdoor spaces to enable people that want to grow their own food, to grow produce exactly where they are in a cost-effective and efficient way,” says Shearer.
Farmshelf has witnessed the impact of this model firsthand at Brooklyn Democracy Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where four (soon to be eight) of their units produce greens that are served in the school cafeteria. High-school students bring surplus produce home to their families — or, share with community members who lack access to fresh food — who are then able to incorporate nutritious ingredients into their meals. “It’s the kids who are changing the diets at home,” Shearer explains.
The Airbnb of Farming
Beyond New York, across North America AgTech is taking different forms. In Detroit, urban agriculture is reshaping a city impacted by unemployment and urban blight. In the inhospitable High Arctic, community greenhouses grow fresh fruits and vegetables for locals. And in the deserts of Texas, Arizona, and Nevada, the business of vertical farming — which demands up to 95 percent less water than conventional agriculture — is booming.
With the price of LEDs coming down, more models of distributed agriculture are becoming viable. For instance, Shearer imagines Farmshelf enabling an Airbnb model of distributed farming, in which people buy or lease public-access grow cabinets and then sell harvest subscriptions to individuals. As well, a future “Lego-block” version of Farmshelf will provide the option of buying or renting customized grow spaces that fit anywhere from a small apartment to a warehouse.
Putting the right technology in people’s hands is the first step toward democratizing food production, Shearer believes. “We’re becoming more connected to our food, and that’s changing the way we eat.”