The Navy Yard company that helps you grow your own food
Farmshelf wants you to DIY — with some help.
When it comes to food delivery, Brooklyn has no shortage of options. There’s Seamless (or a phone call) for takeout, and Fresh Direct for groceries. But Farmshelf, a Brooklyn Navy Yard-based company, is taking food access to a whole new level, and hoping to help solve some of the planet’s growing environmental problems along the way.
“We basically have been working on building systems that make the process of growing your own food easy, enjoyable and efficient,” Andrew Shearer, the 29-year-old founder of Farmshelf, told the Brooklyn Eagle.
His company builds hydroponic “farm walls” for residences. They’re 6 feet tall and electric-powered, growing leafy greens, herbs and edible flowers, their seeds initially planted in miniature flower pots. Fifty foods are available for the customized units, including far-flung rarities like Portugese kale and red komatsuna, a Japanese hybrid of spinach and mustard plants.
With just 30 to 45 minutes of effort weekly, including watering the system and other minor maintenance, consumers can watch their plants sprout as tank cameras and sensors send data to the Navy Yard Farmshelf office. There, automation software takes care of the food’s nourishment and optimizes growing conditions. Electronic alerts instruct Farmshelf users when it’s time to harvest.
Founded nearly four years ago, Farmshelf has planted more than 100 smart indoor farms in homes, restaurants, hotels, schools and even Grand Central Station, home of the company’s first installation. There are Farmshelf systems in Chicago, Houston, Austin, Dallas and Washington, D.C. Through three seed rounds of funding, Farmshelf has raised $7.4 million, and by the end of 2020, Shearer believes the company will operate more than 1,000 units coast to coast.
“We really just see this as the first inning,” Shearer said.
The company began in San Francisco, where Shearer lived and worked in tech. He became interested in home food growth and left an ad sales position at Pinterest to found Farmshelf, building it out first in a basement and, later, a garage — realizing “every San Francisco stereotype” along the way, Shearer said.
The move to New York came about when Farmshelf was accepted into the Urban-X tech startup accelerator, a three-month program that provides seed money and other resources to select companies, aiding them with growth.
“We did not pack in a way that meant we were moving here,” Shearer said. However, the local tech community’s embrace of the company, the growing network of local venture capitalists and a variety of other partners and resource providers made such a transition a no-brainer. “Farmshelf was born in San Francisco, but it was raised in Brooklyn,” Shearer added.
He and his team also recognized that New York’s population density would supply greater sales opportunities, while showing off their solution to food-supply and delivery problems not as prevalent out west.
Nearly all lettuce eaten in the U.S. is grown in California and Arizona. Parts of those states also produce 90 percent of all leafy greens the country eats between November and March, when it’s too cold elsewhere to grow such crops. Not only are California and Arizona starved for water, they’re also thousands of miles away from East Coast metropolises whose landscapes are generally unfit for most traditional agriculture. But the tens of millions of people who call those cities home need to be fed somehow.
Urban agricultural companies such as Farmshelf, as well as other Brooklyn-born rooftop farming bodies like Gotham Greens and Brooklyn Grange, can help provide leafy greens to these areas without the environmental impact that comes with trucking them cross-country. More farming with hydroponics also means less land needed for agriculture, which could, in turn, be used to meet new housing needs or see the reestablishment of lost natural habitats.
By the year 2050, the human population is expected to reach nearly 10 billion, which could boost food demands by approximately 60 percent worldwide. If the agricultural status quo is maintained, freshwater use might also have to jump 15 percent, with supplies already under threat, in part because of the climate crisis. Though tech-based urban agriculture comes with its own environmental concerns — growing these plants still takes a lot of energy — a company like Farmshelf, which puts fruits and vegetables in a bookcase-size, custom-lit glass tanks that can live in a person’s home, could help ease both those burdens.
Local foods provide more nutritious products to consumers, too. Most produce loses 30 percent of its nutrients within three days of harvest. With truck drivers only allowed to drive up to 11 hours across 14-hour shifts, just about all produce in East Coast stores that come from the West Coast has lost at least that much nutritional value.
A societal shift from such inefficient delivery methods would not be unprecedented.
“In the early 1800s we used to ship ice from the north via trains and barges,” Shearer said. “If you tell someone today that we used to ship ice via trains and barges they would look at you like you’re crazy. And then we got centralized cold storage … and then the advent of the refrigerator, where you’re not shipping [ice over] miles; your ice is traveling feet.”
Arguably, all the time spent these days shipping leafy greens, fruits and vegetables from places like Yuma, Arizona, to New York City, also takes away from its taste. To that point, Shearer relayed a story about the time one of his company’s advisors brought his 6-year-old son into the Farmshelf office. They’d given the kid a bag with which to go harvest some fruits and vegetables from one of their farm walls. Of all things, he’d picked some kale.
“And his dad turns to me and goes, ‘He doesn’t like vegetables, and he definitely doesn’t like kale,’” Shearer recalled.
It was shortly after Halloween, and when the boy bit into the kale, he said, “Wow, this is better than trick or treat!”
“You get to bring these flavors and these crops in a beautiful way into people’s lives, but also the flavors and the tastes of what these things are supposed to taste like when grown right,” Shearer said. “Getting to bring that into the experiences is so exciting.”
Michael Stahl is a New York-based reporter covering business and technology across the borough. You can find him on Twitter.
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