Health & Wellness

Betting the Farm

Soil-free, indoor farming might be the future of healthy, local food.

On a 30-degree day in January, heads of butterhead, red oak, and tropicana green-leaf lettuce are soaking up the sun in a balmy 75-degree greenhouse so close to 695, it’s visible to drivers approaching the Francis Scott Key Bridge. “It’s pretty dreamy in here,” says Nicole Baum, director of partnerships at Gotham Greens, as a blue divider lifts and the aroma of fresh pesto welcomes us into the “basil room.”

Unlike companies like Amazon and FedEx that have recently brought industry back to the grounds of the old Bethlehem Steel Plant with their distribution warehouses in Sparrows Point, Gotham Greens arrived and built a farm. An indoor, soil-free, tech-forward, 100,000-square-foot one.

Started on a Brooklyn rooftop in 2011, the New York City-based company is one of a hearty group of businesses now growing vegetables indoors in Baltimore year-round, turning the city into what could be, given its proximity to so many markets, a Mid-Atlantic hydroponic produce hub.

From small-scale, DIY endeavors to massive, state-of-the-art operations like Gotham Greens, these businesses say they’re increasing access to healthy, local produce while eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient losses, and food safety concerns inherent in shipping, say, California romaine across the country to the East Coast. They also see their controlled-environment agriculture as important to food security in the era of climate change.

How they will affect the region’s food system, however, is still uncertain.

“I used to be a hacker for the Feds,” says Larry Hountz from inside his brick rowhouse off Patterson Park, where he sits on a leopard-print stool, offers guests velvet slippers, and talks about the farm he operates in his spare bedroom upstairs.

Those computer skills helped him build City-Hydro in 2013, where he now grows dozens of varieties of microgreens out of his own home. A traumatic brain injury suffered in a car accident had made focusing at a computer difficult, and urban farming seemed like it could provide opportunities for both healing and business. When he looked into indoor hydroponic systems fit for city living, though, he didn’t like what he found. “It was a lot of non-food-safe plastics and fertilizers and just things that didn’t make sense to me,” he says.

Hydroponic farming is generally done indoors. It involves placing plants in trays or towers, with the roots dropping directly into water instead of soil. Liquid nutrients are added to the water, LEDs are used for lighting, and the environment is climate-controlled for ideal growing conditions.

Hountz and his wife, Zhanna, bought their own materials, including grow lights, green plastic trays, and wire racks. Then they researched and tested designs until they landed on an efficient way to produce their seedlings, which require little space and grow to maturity quickly. He decided to sell directly to local chefs, who love microgreens for their concentrated flavor and delicate appearance. In their 10-by-15-foot room, the trays are stacked vertically, with water the only input, no pesticides, and energy-efficient lights above each.

In January, micro leeks for Cinghiale were sprouting out of coconut husk pads below micro peas headed to The Pendry and Foraged. But the farm has been significantly scaled back since its most productive days. After news coverage thrust their surprisingly simple, yet effective, system into the spotlight, the couple shifted the bulk of their business to selling the system they invented to other eager growers. “This week alone, I think we sold 60,” Hountz says, showing off a tower of boxes behind the kitchen filled with supplies that needed to be unpacked and assembled for customers. “We import a million coconut pads a year.”

They also offer free trainings and post YouTube videos for individuals who want to build their own farms instead of buying them, and as people from across the country visit the house to learn and report back with success stories, Hountz sees little need for what he considers big, corporate growers. “The only way we’re going to feed people [around the world] is with small, individually owned farms,” he says. “This works, and we have the people out there to prove it.”

While some hail hydroponics as an exciting new farming frontier, others are worried about the implications of growing without soil, like on the nutritional value of the vegetables produced. In the hydroponic production of full-size produce, however, growers feed their plants tailored fertilizers, which can lead to higher levels of some nutrients compared to soil-based farming.

Research also shows nutrient levels in all vegetables degrade over time, and produce sold in East Coast grocery stores is typically shipped long distances, especially during winter. Because hydroponic growers can harvest year-round in any locale, they are technically able to get fresher greens to consumers more quickly.

But skeptics like farmer Dave Chapman, executive director of the Real Organic Project, say soil is a complex ecosystem, home to fungi and microorganisms that interact with plant roots in ways not yet fully understood. “We are not smart enough to get the nutrient balance exactly correct,” he says. “The more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know.”

How these farms will affect the local food system is still uncertain.

Then there’s the environmental impact. Hydroponic systems vary considerably, so it can be hard to make comparisons. Local distribution, no matter the farming method, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to transportation. Hydroponic farms generally use significantly less water and require less space, and therefore land, to produce more food. They do, however, require some energy use for systems such as lighting and climate control. Traditional outdoor farms, of course, work off natural light, but they often pollute the environment via man-made fertilizers and pesticides used to control variables and inefficiencies inherent in nature.

Organic outdoor farmers, however, have long confronted these challenges without chemicals, in ways that benefit the environment. “Organic farming is based on healthy soil,” Chapman says, back to its earliest roots, which in turn, farmers and experts say, leads to healthy plants. “The slogan is ‘feed the soil, not the plant.’”

Recently, he and other farmers have been at odds with corporate hydroponic growers who lobbied for their crops to be eligible for USDA organic certification simply based on the absence of added chemicals. Operations like Gotham Greens avoid that debate altogether: Instead of calling their produce organic, they simply state that they do not use pesticides.

In the end, some see ultra-automated, large hydroponic farms as threatening to those that are small and family-run. Others view them as an exciting way to replace the sprayed greens from far-flung places that sit on supermarket shelves.

Somewhere in the middle is Jon Shaw, a local farmer whose name comes up in most conversations surrounding hydroponic produce in Baltimore, which may be surprising to those who know him as the organic guru behind Karma Farm in Monkton.

While Shaw and his son, Nat, fully believe that soil’s magic leads to the incredible sweetness of their winter carrots, they also see hydroponic growing as complementary to their outdoor organic production. “It became clear to us that the winter was our weakness,” says Nat, who runs the farm’s hydroponic operations. “It seemed like this perfect marriage to combine hydroponics with the outdoor farm to have local, seasonal food all year.”

Like Hountz, Nat is a tech-savvy tinkerer who built proprietary systems for Karma Farm after discovering the made-to-order versions didn’t quite work as advertised. In his basement farm, where he was growing multiple basil varieties in January, he’s like a scientist showing off the gadgets in his lab, complete with timers, pumps, fans, dehumidifiers, and beneficial insects released to deal with harmful pests.

He also tends to two hydroponic farms inside shipping containers. One sits next to a Karma barn and is filled with specialty herbs like borage and cilantro, growing in vertical towers. The other is on the grounds of Sandlot, chef Spike Gjerde’s outdoor beach bar at Harbor Point, and it’s equipped to produce trays of leafy greens, which can be eaten at many restaurants, including Woodberry Kitchen.

For the Shaws, perfecting the shipping containers was a long process. Many growers find these systems difficult to master due to design flaws and the sensitive calibration of technology. So far, greens, herbs, and microgreens are the only vegetables that hydroponic farmers see as efficient enough to grow to make a profit. “It took us about two and a half years to figure out what we could grow and what will sell consistently,” Jon says.

In West Baltimore, a new, 3,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse that’s under construction is all about training farmers. Public charter school Green Street Academy specializes in workforce development for “green careers” and is already home to an orchard, chicken coop, fish farm, pollinator meadow, and hoop house for vegetables.

But one challenge to educating young people in agriculture has long been the school year, which is out of sync with the growing season, says JJ Reidy, CEO and co-founder of Urban Pastoral, a local sustainable development company that’s helping Green Street build agricultural infrastructure. A greenhouse that continues to operate through the winter will give students the chance to participate in every part of the growing process.

“We should be able to do 25,000 pounds of leafy greens a year,” says Reidy, who plans to purchase them for Molina and Stem, his restaurants inside R. House in Remington. He also points out that the recent growth of hydroponic farming in Baltimore means that there will likely be more internship and job opportunities available for kids. “Indoor agriculture is a burgeoning field,” he says.

“We should be able to do 25,000 pounds of leafy greens a year.”

Across from T.J. Maxx and Petco in Nottingham, a looming gray building looks like a warehouse for storing boxes, but a worker wearing a hard hat and orange vest opens an unmarked metal door and points inside. “It’s the future of farming,” he says with a grin.

One thing is for sure: it’s futuristic farming. Started in New York City in 2015 with a mission to reduce some of the environmental impacts of agriculture, Bowery, another indoor farm setting up shop in Baltimore, now grows greens and herbs—purple bok choy, baby kale, wasabi arugula—at two farms in New Jersey.

During a winter visit, the Baltimore operation was barely up and running, but it was already clear that when founder-CEO Irving Fain says, “We stack our crops vertically from the floor to the ceiling,” he is not speaking metaphorically. The design, kept tightly under wraps, involves a dizzying grid of levels, stairways, and robotic parts moving around on their own. Fain declined to share the size of the farm or how much it cost to build, but Bowery has raised about $175 million total to date. He, too, chose the Baltimore County location for its access to markets and transportation.

“In this surrounding area, there are about 25 million people that we could serve with this farm,” he says, noting that Nottingham used to be an agricultural area. “This fulfills the mission we talk about—getting fresh food efficiently and sustainably to our population.”

Fain envisions a scalable model that would allow him to build Bowery farms that distribute locally in cities all over the world, and he emphasizes the importance of the sophisticated operating system that involves sensors, cameras, and algorithms that are constantly tracking and adjusting the plants and their environment.

“It’s like our central nervous system,” he says. “We’re collecting millions of data points in real time, and that data impacts how our crops are growing.” The company also digitally tracks each plant from seed to shelf, which reduces the possibility of an untraceable food safety scare.

While the scale and sophistication may inspire awe, the light human touch needed to operate the whole thing is apparent as well. When it’s fully up and running this spring, Bowery’s farm will create about 80 local jobs.

Gotham Greens’ farm will also employ about 60 people locally. But inside, it has less of a space-age feel, primarily because the company uses the sun instead of LEDs as its main source of light, and thus, plant energy. The space is vast, with leafy greens snuggled up to each other in rows as far as the eye can see, but it looks more like a turned-up version of a typical greenhouse. The technology used to irrigate, deliver nutrients, and move rows from seed to harvest is barely visible.

Since its launch in 2009, Gotham expanded within New York and also built farms in Chicago and Providence, Rhode Island. The Baltimore farm is the seventh, coming in around $11 million to build, and an eighth will be up and running soon in Denver. With each new location, the scale has grown, from the original 15,000 square feet to this newest iteration, which is six times the size with more advanced systems in terms of sensors, data, climate control, and automation.

CEO and co-founder Viraj Puri says the company was especially interested in Sparrows Point because urban revitalization is a part of the company’s larger goals. “We’re not single-handedly changing neighborhoods and cities,” he says. “But we are helping to raise the profile of some of these areas, to attract other businesses, and be a catalyst for additional urban renewal.”

Produce from Bowery and Gotham Greens will be sold throughout Maryland and surrounding states at various grocery stores, such as Whole Foods for the latter, and both will also court chefs throughout the region. As for small, local farms, Jon Shaw isn’t worried. “We have a relationship with restaurants. . . they want to be catered to, they want specialized [products],” he says. “And I think there’s a really strong inclination from chefs that buy locally to buy from soil-based farms.”

Plus, Fain says, “When you look at the demand for local food right now, it far, far outpaces the supply.”