In the US, one company has teamed with a leading tech firm to develop innovative micro-farm modules to grow fresh produce in the heart of the city.
By CHRISTINE BROWN-PAUL
In January this year, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a statewide emergency with more than 80% of California now in a state of extreme or exceptional drought.
California’s dwindling reservoir supply has resulted in mandatory water cutbacks and unprecedented fines, yet no region of the state has conserved as much water as Governor Brown requested and water use even increased in urban areas last May.
One of the highest economic impacts will be felt in California’s produce industry, with an estimated 800,000 acres of idle farmland.
With 70% of the nation’s lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley, the severe water shortage means there is a potential national food security issue. Fortunately, there is a solution: growing produce locally with hydroponics can help to conserve valuable water resources by saving up to 90% of the water used in soil-based agriculture.
Finding alternative farming systems to keep up with expanding food demand in ways that reduce environmental impact, is a task that calls for some innovative thinking. Heeding the call, California-based Cityblooms is a company that develops and implements urban farming technology to provide communities with easy and affordable access to nutritious fresh produce.
Located in Santa Cruz, at the intersection of the world’s tech and agricultural capitals, Cityblooms makes farming ‘smart’. The inspiration for Cityblooms came out of a desire to provide sustainably grown food to a rapidly expanding population. The company has developed Internet connected and controlled micro-farms that transform underutilised spaces into highly productive agricultural hubs. Cityblooms boasts that it enables enterprising ‘agripreneurs’ “to produce premium crops with drastic improvements in resource efficiency.”
CEO and ‘Farmer-in-Chief’ of Cityblooms, Nick Halmos, began his career in urban farming in 2001. Since that time, he has been a consistent innovator in the urban agriculture field while also pursuing a variety of entrepreneurial interests. In 2010, Nick moved Cityblooms to Santa Cruz, California, and assembled a team to develop the next generation of urban farming technology.
“I originally founded the company as an undergraduate at Brown University, to develop an urban rooftop greenhouse. We built what was, to my knowledge, the first shipping container farm as a proof of concept. Through the process of attempting to get a rooftop greenhouse funded and built, I learned about the myriad engineering and logistical challenges associated with getting such a project completed under typical urban building codes, especially on rooftops,” Nick says.
“I began to see the value in an urban farming solution that could deliver greenhouse quality agricultural precision in a form factor that was flexible enough, and lightweight enough, to be rapidly deployed into the under-utilised nooks, crannies, and rooftops of the urban landscape. That laid the foundation for what Cityblooms is today.”
So how did the concept evolve from there?
“In 2010, we began to develop our first modular prototypes. The designs went through numerous iterations in which we tested various concepts, utilising a range of hydroponic technologies,” Nick explains.
“We kept refining the designs to create a flexible system that is easy to operate and maintain, while remaining robust enough to be used in a commercial capacity. It became obvious that such a system would require a sophisticated software/hardware package, so that became a pillar of our development process.”
“Using the power of the Web, cloud computing, and ‘Internet-of-Things’ sensor networks, Cityblooms represents the future of urban farming,” Nick says.
“We build two models of modular cultivation units, with plans to expand the line. Our first model is designed to grow a large selection of leafy greens (lettuce, culinary herbs, micro greens, brassicas, chard, etc.) as well as smaller fruiting crops like strawberries and peppers. We also build a module that is configured to grow vine crops.”
A moveable feast
Cityblooms’ modular micro-farms grow fresh and healthy food on rooftops, parking lots, patios, parks, and just about anywhere. Units are designed to fit around existing rooftop infrastructure without the need for structural retrofitting. As demand grows, additional modular units can be simply added to increase farm capacity.
What types of benefits can the system provide?
“Firstly, our technology enables us to establish commercial-style farming operations that grow produce of quality on par with commercial greenhouses in locations where a greenhouse is simply not practical,” Nick says.
“The modular nature of our equipment allows us to work in discontinuous and irregular spaces while farming around existing infrastructure constraints. Furthermore, our equipment is extremely lightweight, so we can install on rooftops where a greenhouse would be impossible without costly structural upgrades to a building.
“Secondly, our farms can install and scale very easily. This allows a micro-farm to begin with a small installation and grow over time by adding more units. The equipment has been designed to rapidly assemble and dissemble, while flat-packing for shipping. We could pack a micro-farm efficiently into a shipping container, ship it anywhere in the world, and have agricultural operations up and running in a matter of days after arrival,” he says.
“Similarly, if desired, a micro-farm can be disassembled and moved on a very short timeline. This makes a big difference to commercial property owners who might be uncomfortable with the long-term commitment required for an urban greenhouse project.
“Thirdly, our farms are equipped with an embedded computing package that aggregates hydroponic system control (heating, cooling, nutrient dosing, irrigation, etc.) and food safety record keeping (crop traceability, system maintenance, and sanitation scheduling, etc.) functions into an intuitive user interface, hosted in the ‘cloud’, that can be accessed from any Internet enabled device,” Nick says.
“These features really make it easy for operators to stay on top of all the details that go into running a farm under a certified food safety program.
“Our reservoir modules and software will also be offered separately for use in greenhouses or outdoor hydroponic systems that do not want to use our cultivation modules. The reservoirs can be equipped with a variety of pumps and basin sizes to run just about any type of hydroponic system. This allows farmers to leverage our technology while utilising production techniques most suitable to their location.”
So what kind of yields can the system offer?
“System output will obviously vary between installations due to changes in climate, crops under production, and the level of intensity with which a micro-farm is operated,” Nick says.
“ However, our systems can perform on par with commercial greenhouses in terms of output per unit of cultivation area. Our farms will tend to be smaller than a typical greenhouse. The urban environment does not generally have so much space available in one place. Rather than one big farm in a city, we envision multiple smaller installations spread throughout a city’s neighbourhoods. That’s just the reality of urban growth.”
From farm to fork
In 2014, Cityblooms built a small farm with its latest technology and partnered with tech leader Plantronics and Bon Appétit Management Company to deploy the farm at the Plantronics global headquarters as a pilot project.
Plantronics Inc. is pioneering the use of on-site food production to boost employee nutrition as part of the company’s global commitment to sustainability. Through the joint project with Cityblooms, a prototype computer-controlled farm has been installed at the Plantronics headquarters and is being powered by the company’s existing solar energy system.
The hydroponic micro-farm produces bi-weekly harvests of premium leafy greens and vegetables for the on-site cafe operated by Bon Appetit Management Company, a national leader in socially and environmentally responsible food service.
“By locating these micro-farms close to the point of consumption, we measure farm-to-fork distances in yards, rather than miles,” said Cityblooms’ Nick Halmos.
“We eliminate the financial and environmental costs associated with food waste and food transportation.”
“We all know that fresher produce definitely tastes better,” said Ken Kannappan, President and CEO of Plantronics.
“But the benefits include better nutrition for our employees. Store-bought lettuce, for example, can lose up to half its vitamin C in the average of five days it takes from harvest to home. Just as important, we save more than 10,000 gallons of water annually through Cityblooms’ recirculation system, while eliminating environmental contamination from fertiliser run-off.
“Our relationship with Cityblooms has helped Plantronics operate conscientiously in a way that is consistent with our values and commitment to the environment,” says Ken Kannappan who has always pushed innovation.
He led Plantronics to win dozens of product awards, installing a solar energy system above the company parking lot, recreating the work environment as a light and welcoming place, and earning recognition as one of the top workplaces in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Steve Carroll, Plantronics’ brand marketing specialist and someone who eats salad every day, said he has noticed the difference with having the micro-farm on site.
“The greens are a lot fresher,” he said.
“There’s more variety, things like pea shoots, which we hadn’t seen before,” added Dolores Nelson, senior director of facilities and workplace services.
This year, Bon Appetit is celebrating the 15th anniversary of its Farm to Fork program, through which all of its chefs are required to purchase at least 20% of their ingredients from small farms located within 150 miles of their kitchens.
“I’m excited to see this partnership between our chefs and Cityblooms grow at Plantronics,” said Bon Appetit CEO Fedele Bauccio.
“Combining cutting-edge growing technology and fresh, delicious greens sounds like a winning recipe to me.”
A green future
According to Nick Halmos, currently, Cityblooms is focusing on developing a standardised package for enterprise class clients that wish to use on-site farming to benefit their businesses, customers and employees.
“This includes hospitality clients like hotels and restaurants, corporations looking to achieve CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] objectives and contribute to employee wellness, health care facilities like hospitals and assisted living communities, and produce retailers seeking to provide ultra-fresh and hyper-local produce to their customers,” he says.
“Within the next year, we also intend to offer our technology for residential use.
“We intend to offer our micro-farms worldwide. As mentioned, our equipment is easy to ship and assemble. Furthermore, our energy-efficient systems have been designed to run on 12v DC so they are readily compatible with solar energy sources for operations in remote locations,” Nick says.
“We have big plans for the future, but right now our team is squarely focused on executing the small steps in front of us needed to achieve company growth.”
About the author
Christine Brown-Paul is a Sydney-based journalist and a regular contributor to PH&G, with a special interest in the environment and sustainable technology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Ω
PH&G November 2014 / Issue 149