New York City

This Company Wants to Bring Soil-Free Farming to Restaurant Kitchens

June 30, 2017

Hydroponics have allowed garden vegetables to grow in novel places—from a pillar inside a Berlin grocery store to a veritable skyscraper of plants in Singapore. The fast-growing, soil-free farming method has been well-embraced in urban areas to produce crops using less water and space, since the plants are grown in a nutrient water solution, rather than in-ground. But rarely is it done within some of the buzziest places for the farm-to-table movement: a restaurant.

The team behind Farmshelf hopes that will soon change, and recently debuted three indoor hydroponic growing units at Grand Central Station’s Great Northern Food Hall. There, the chefs at the busy food market’s Scandinavian pavillion Meyers Bageri reach into the glass-walled cubicles to pick lemon basil for a garnish on their zucchini flatbread, and nearly a dozen varieties of baby lettuces are plucked for salads at the neighboring Almanak vegetable-driven pavillion. And, as it would appear on recent visits, curious bystanders peer through the glass, agape at the billowy mixture of herbs and greens, illuminated by a ceiling of LEDs. Unbeknownst to the casual observer, the units are also outfitted with five cameras along every shelf, so that the Farmshelf team can monitor the plants’ progress from afar and adjust the system via a web application.

“The more plants we grow, the smarter we are about plants,” said Jean-Paul Kyrillos, Farmshelf’s Chief Revenue Officer. He explained that through their data collection, Farmshelf can optimize the growth and flavor of any plants that a client may want. “This is for someone who doesn’t want to be a botanist, or farmer. The system is automatic.”

Plants can grow two to three times as fast using 90% less water than traditional in-ground farming

That’s why Farmshelf hopes its units will be a boon for restaurants serving greens galore. Founded in 2016 by CEO Andrew Shearer, Farmshelf is just planting its roots in the New York City restaurant industry with its first partner, Meyers USA hospitality group. The startup was in the inaugural lineup of the Urban-X accelerator and is part of the Urban Tech program at New Lab. The company is looking to partner with more restaurants soon, and Kyrillos mentioned a restaurateur who was excited about the idea of placing a Farmshelf unit right in the dining room, as a partition.

Distribution is the last challenge of getting local food onto plates, and Farmshelf eliminates that entire process—no middleman, forager, or schleps to Union Square Greenmarket. Kyrillos is hopeful that the efficiency of hydroponics—where plants can grow two to three times as fast using 90% less water than traditional in-ground farming—will also convince restaurants of the value of placing such a system on-site. Then, there is the potential of growing ingredients that you could never get locally, like citrus; or mimicking the terroir of, say, Italy, through a special blend of nutrients and conditions within the units.

Green City Growers in Cleveland, OH, has a 3.25-acre hydroponic greenhouse. Photo by Flickr/Horticulture Group

With hydroponics, you can grow a plethora of vegetables, even root vegetables like turnips, carrots, radishes, but these take much longer, and thus not suited to the fast-paced restaurant environment Farmshelf is trying to service. Crops that take up a lot of space, like watermelon and pole beans, are also not ideal, as the point is for these systems to use space efficiently (though future designs of hydroponic units might be able to tackle this challenge). It's most cost-effective to grow delicate, highly perishable, expensive leafy greens than roots, which are easy to ship and store.

The possibilities seem endless. But, in an age when the small family farm is rapidly disappearing in the US—and faces further threat from a recent White House budget proposal that would eliminate crop insurancewould this technology take away business from local farms, which restaurants might otherwise buy from?

Kyrillos doesn’t see Farmshelf as a replacement for the local farmer. There are some six to eight months of the year where traditional farms can’t grow too many crops, so restaurants would buy leafy greens and other warm-season produce elsewhere. If anything, Kyrillos posited that it might chip away at business from some of the bigger food distributors.

But time will have to tell what best works for the soon-to-be users of Farmshelf. Right now, the company is hoping to sell restaurants at least three growing units to make a significant enough impact on its kitchen orders. Rather than leaving it at that, Farmshelf wants to work with restaurants through a sort of subscription-based service, supplying seeds for crops that the restaurant would like to grow and monitoring the growing process consistently. Could a chef go rogue, and use the unit to plant and harvest whatever, whenever he pleased? Perhaps—but that wouldn’t really be taking advantage of the full product, which the team estimates might cost around $7,000 per unit (a medium-sized restaurant might need three units, at $21,000), which would pay off in ingredient costs.

And how about home chefs? When will average consumers be able to place Farmshelf inside our cramped, outdoor space-free apartments? That’s in the vision for Farmshelf someday. Not just homes, but school classrooms or cafeterias could be future sites of these hydroponic shelves, Kyrillos suggested, offering an easy, indoor way to connect youngsters to the food on their plates. “Imagine children were watching food grow, all the time.”

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