"We build industrial-scale ecosystems." So says Jason Green, CEO and co-founder of Edenworks, a Brooklyn-based urban farming startup. Unlike a typical indoor farm—a sterile environment, sometimes run by people in gloves or even by robots—Edenworks tries to build in as much life as possible.
In their new warehouse, set to open in New York City this summer, fish will grow in tanks, bacteria will turn the fish waste into a rich fertilizer, and plants will use that fertilizer to grow. "That's the way the Earth works—we've just turned it into kind of like a manufacturing process, but it's all based on ecology," he says.
In a year, the 6,000-square-foot space will produce around 180,000 pounds of salad greens and tilapia for local grocery stores and restaurants.
The startup is one of a handful that will open large-scale urban farms this year. Nearby, in Newark, New Jersey, Aerofarms is turning a vacant steel factory into a 69,000-square-foot "aeroponic" farm. Gotham Greens just opened the world's largest rooftop greenhouse in Chicago, an addition to the others it runs in New York. FarmedHere, which also runs a large indoor farm in Chicago, plans to open a nationwide network.
Edenworks claims to have an advantage over most of its competitors: because it uses aquaponics—combining raising fish with plants—it says the salad greens it grows actually taste better. (FarmedHere also uses aquaponics; most others use hydroponics or aeroponics to pump in a mix of nutrients separately, without using fish).
"Hydroponic produce either tastes watery or it tastes off," says Green. "You'll get the abundance of one flavor, like anise, rather than balanced, which is why it has a bad rep with chefs. On the other hand, our chefs tell us that the produce that we grow is literally the best produce that they've ever eaten."
While a hydroponic system might have to pump in a new mix of nutrients on a regular basis, as the system becomes unbalanced, the aquaponics system is self-regulating, full of bacteria that digest waste and keep everything running. "All of that biological robustness builds balance, flavor, and nutrition," he says.
Edenworks has been producing a small supply of produce for early customers like Maple, a meal delivery company. They originally planned to open their new large space as a rooftop greenhouse, but because LED lights have become so cheap—dropping 85% in cost over the last four years—they now plan to use a warehouse instead, where construction will be easier.
Though the first location is in New York, they hope to quickly expand. "America is a really big place with a lot of bad salad," says Green. Most salad greens are currently shipped from California, Arizona, and Mexico, despite the demand for local produce.
"We're cost competitive with the big guys that are growing organic salad in California, Arizona, and Mexico, which is really disruptive," he says. "We want to be the scalable, distributed, local purveyor. So if there's a huge market for local salad greens in Cincinnati, the technology that we've developed—this modular aquaponic infrastructure—allows us to deploy a facility in Cincinnati and work with the regional grocers there. We can do the same thing in Milwaukee, or Boston, or Philadelphia. New York is a really exciting place to start the company, but it's becoming increasingly cramped, and there are a ton of opportunities outside New York that we'll be exploring."