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Urban Farms Are Off The Hook — And Off The Shelf (CleanTechnica Interview)

Urban farms as easy as opening the fridge? One company has a plug-and-play system that could become the next standard appliance for homes and businesses.

The urban farms of the future are already here, in the form of the now familiar field of hydroponics. So does this mean that the urban agriculture revolution is just a matter of scaling up and breaking down the technology into a user-friendly system?  Maybe…or maybe not. A recent visit to the clean tech incubator New Lab in Brooklyn underscored that technology is just part of a broader issue, namely, how to introduce agricultural operations at scale into densely packed urban areas.

urban farms hydroponics

The Farmshelf hydroponic model for urban farms (photo by Tina Casey)

The Urban Farms Of The Future

New Lab showcased the hydroponic startup Farmshelf at its urban agriculture conference last month, and the company has some ambitious plans for the urban agriculture revolution.

It’s not quite a chicken-in-every-pot approach, but if all goes according to plan, Farmshelf could make urban farms as ubiquitous — and as easy to operate — as the refrigerator in your kitchen.

Farmshelf’s narrow footprint and vertical layout takes on the issue of making space indoors for growing crops. The company’s close attention to visual presentation also provides for placement in practically any indoor environment where a bookshelf could fit, from restaurants and hotel lobbies to museums, schools and community centers.

The business model is also built for scaling up. While the typical setup for a Farmshelf urban farm currently costs thousands, co-founder Suma Reddy is looking at mass production to achieve a selling price of about $800.

In other words, urban farming could become affordable for many households at a scale much larger than those little counter-top setups.

As for user-friendliness, which Farmshelf addresses that issue through a plug-and-play, WiFi-connected system. Think of it as any other kitchen appliance and you’re on the right track.

“When you see it, you understand it,” Reddy told the gathering at the New Lab event last month.

A Holistic Approach To Urban Farming

And, this is where things could get a bit sticky.

Hydroponic tech is not particularly compatible with growing corn, potatoes, and other large crops that generate copious amounts of agricultural waste. However, there is still some waste involved in growing lettuces, herbs, and other crops in hydroponic tables. That includes roots, stems, and unusable leaves as well as leftovers from seed pods.

So what happens to waste disposal systems in a city when tens of thousands of residents, businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and schools all rev up their hydroponic tables and start chopping away?

That’s a good question, and that’s where the New Lab approach comes in.

CleanTechnica had a chance to speak with New Lab’s Chief Product Officer, Satish Rao, about the elements that make New Lab different from other clean tech incubators.

“At New Lab, we believe in building communities,” he explained. “When you look at urban problems like food systems, transportation, and sustainability, it’s not just about technology solutions. You also need policies and community planning.”

A New Kind Of Entrepreneur

Satish also noted that New Lab is nurturing an emerging trend in startup culture as it relates to new technology:

“There has been a shift in the technology entrepreneur, following a shift in consumer behavior. The inventor of technology today cares about social impact. Instead of disrupting and then solving problems, they come in with open eyes when developing new products.”

That includes urban agriculture.

“Food metabolism is an incredibly complex problem. Urban agriculture solves some problems but raises others. The answer is to create holistic ecosystems,” said Satish.

One problem to resolve will be how to transport and process waste from urban farms without increasing impacts on communities that host transportation, collection, and processing sites.

Satish also envisions a model in which urban farms and upstate farmers collaborate on land use, including repurposing farmland for other uses and growing crops year-round.

Urban Farms & The Energy Question

Over and above the issue of agricultural waste disposal is the issue of energy consumption.

Even with the use of high efficiency lighting, the mass introduction of hydroponic tables will have an impact on electricity demand in a given area.

In the big picture, though, there is a trade-off between increasing electricity consumption at urban farm sites, and decreasing energy related to the current practice of transporting full-grown crops in refrigerated trucks around the country.

The  water-energy nexus is also in play. Hydroponic farming is far more water-efficient than conventional in-ground agriculture, but the water-energy nexus involves location, location, location.

Urban farms, for the most part, are going to draw their water from potable water systems. That translates into an increased use of energy for water transportation and treatment, including energy related to producing chemicals for water treatment.

On the other hand, the mass adoption of urban farms could help reduce stress on water systems that are over-used by conventional farming.

There’s a lot to sort out here in terms of sustainable urban planning, and don’t forget that the urban aquaponics trend is bubbling up under the surface, too.

Meanwhile, CleanTechnica is looking forward to seeing what’s next around the corner for Farmshelf and New Lab.

Follow me on Twitter.

Photo: Farmshelf urban agriculture by Tina Casey.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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