The future of produce

Shelf-size vertical farms are revolutionizing the food industry.

When working as a partner manager at Pinterest in 2015, Andrew Shearer found himself collecting pins about at-home farming. However, he found it was difficult to cultivate his own produce. “There was tons of misinformation and I saw an opportunity to take technology from different industries and bring it together in a way that truly enables anyone to grow their own food,” Shearer says.

Farmshelf, which is based in Brooklyn, has created a piece of automated technology that several New York City restaurants are now using to cultivate more than 50 types of produce such as leafy greens, herbs, and microgreens right in their kitchens, eliminating the need for food to be shipped an average of 1,500 miles. What’s more, the shelf-size vertical farm yields produce faster and with a higher nutritional value than what you’d find at a grocery store.

Here, Shearer shares why working with chefs has been a key to success and his vision for the company.

Who is the target Farmshelf customer?

The original idea was to create it for home users but we actually decided to start with chefs.

Why is that?

Once we went through product development and strategy, we decided it made the most sense to get the input of chefs first because they’re such great, professional users of food and they depend on high-quality ingredients. Our partners, including Claus Meyer, Marcus Samuelsson, and José Andrés, give us important feedback, which is helping us develop a product that’s not only great for them, but eventually will be great for a home user too.

What kind of feedback have they given you?

After our product was installed at Claus Meyer’s café in Grand Central Station, I was surprised at how excited his employees were about the efficiency aspect. They were calling us saying ‘I don’t get it, why does this lettuce taste better?’ and they really wanted to be involved. Arugula, for example, should have a peppery taste, but so often the store-bought variety lacks that.

Tell us a little more about the technology.

We provide the nutrients directly to the roots and pull CO2 out of ambient air to increase the CO2 levels. This helps the plants grow 20 to 30 percent faster. We currently have around 50 crops that include various microgreens, leafy greens, and herbs.

Did anything else surprise you in the process?

Originally we just wanted to grow things as good as what they were already getting but efficiently and in a beautiful way, but we blew our own expectations out of the water in terms of flavor and that’s been really fun.

How do you get a better flavor and more nutrients?

It’s a common misconception that hydroponic farming will yield bland produce, and that’s true if it’s not done properly. Previously, a lot of people used these purpleish lights that didn’t fully develop the plant sugars. Now, we can provide the plant exactly what it needs with different colored lights when it needs it. Since you can harvest at the optimal time you lock in more nutrients than what you’d find at a grocery store.

How long does the whole process take?

You can grow basil or a full head of lettuce in as little as 20 days. For flavor reasons, we find that the best amount of time is about 22 to 24 days. In comparison, it would take 60 to 90 days to grow that same size in traditional agriculture, so we grow two to three times faster.

What’s next for Farmshelf?

In the near future, we’ll grow strawberries, peppers, and tomatoes in that order and continue to innovate to bring the product to more people. One day we will be able to use different light frequencies, which will mimic the type of light that you’d experience in Japanese meditation gardens. These are things that not only add value from an aesthetic perspective, but also from a mental health perspective. If we can bring people into the process of growing great-tasting food, we can improve our lives in other ways.