Salmon and Baby Chard, Brought to You by a Brooklyn Farm

(Bloomberg) -- Brooklyn is not what most people envision when they think of farm country.

But if you take the L train to Montrose Avenue and walk a block, past the liquor store and catty corner to Louis Tommaso funeral home, you’ll find Edenworks.  It’s an indoor aquaponics operation is raising salmon, shrimp and a hybrid striped bass on the lower level, with teeny tiny salad greens known as baby greens and microgreens, upstairs. A stone’s throw away is Oko Farms, also doing aquaponics, but outdoors and with an educational focus. And Smallhold, which grows mushrooms in its Minifarms in several New York City locations, is headquartered in nearby Fort Greene. 

By housing fish and crops under one roof in East Williamsburg, Edenworks is putting a modern spin on an ancient form of agriculture. Chinese rice farmers have been putting carp in their flooded paddies for centuries, and the Aztecs grew crops on “chinampas,” or artificial islands, in lakes. The fish fertilize the crops and can be eaten at the end of the growing cycle.

The Edenworks version—urban, with a focus on premium products—should appeal to the growing category of shoppers looking for local, sustainable, healthy food that comes with lots of flavor and a good backstory. The company already sells two-ounce Spicy Microgreens and Mighty Microgreens Personal Salads for $4.49 each at the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, location of Whole Foods Market. (Sorry locavores, but for now, the fish are only available to a select few at promotional or local events.) 

Salmon and Baby Chard, Brought to You by a Brooklyn Farm

Novel farming operations have proliferated in recent years, and several have attracted huge investments, notably indoor farms Plenty, which raised $200 million in 2017, and Bowery Farming, which pulled in $90 million in December. But profitability is elusive, and investments in such startups dipped last year, dropping 7.3 percent to $601 million, according to researcher AgFunder, even as the overall agri-tech sector raised a record-breaking $16.9 billion.

The hard part is turning small-scale operations into big ones. Several have failed, among them PodPonics in Atlanta, FarmedHere in Chicago and another Brooklyn aquaponics enterprise, Verticulture Farms. The indoor farming niche is “more challenging than many other ag-tech categories,” says Louisa Burwood-Taylor, AgFunder’s head of media and research.  “Investors might be more wary until they’ve seen some of these concepts proven out.”

Welcome to the Aqualab

Edenworks co-founder Jason Green, a technologist with a background in neuroscience, believes he has a winning formula. The company closed a $5 million seed round in May, with investors including venture capitalists and food industry veterans. The bet is that Edenworks’s (relatively) simple plan to go to market, with a focus on greens before scaling the seafood, will land it alongside such aquaponics operations as Wisconsin’s Superior Fresh, which now produces 1.8 million pounds of leafy greens and 160,000 pounds of fish each year. 

Green, who runs Edenworks, founded the company with construction manager and systems engineer Matt LaRosa and chief technology officer Ben Silverman in 2013, originally building a pilot system raising tilapia and a variety of vegetables. Now they’re growing only baby greens and microgreens, with itty bitty versions of red kale, chard and cabbage—and the lowly tilapia has been abandoned. That commonly farmed species, Green concedes, is never going to be a marquee item. “You can’t brand or market your way out of it being a tilapia,” he says. 

Salmon and Baby Chard, Brought to You by a Brooklyn Farm

Edenworks’ ecosystem harnesses the power of the microbiome instead of pesticides, antibiotics or synthetic fertilizers. The ground-level Aqualab is where the fish live. The waste, mostly feces along with a bit of ammonia from the fish urine and uneaten food, is run through a mechanical filter to separate liquids from solids. Bacteria grown from a starter culture then convert the ammonia to nitrates, sending fertilizer-rich water to the greens in the Farmlab two flights up. For now the solids are aerobically digested, a bacterial sewage treatment process, similar to the ammonia’s conversion to nitrates. (In future facilities, Green said, they’ll be gasified to generate energy.) The result is yields more than twice industry averages and more than eighteen months of farming without any foodborne pathogens, according to the company.

A ‘Win-Win-Win?’

The next step is ramping up the operations into a larger, New York metro area farm in 2020. But scaling vertical farms, even those just focused on a single production system, has been a challenge.

“It sounds like a win-win-win,” says Henry Gordon-Smith, founder and managing director for Agritecture Consulting, an urban-farming consulting firm one L stop away. “But the challenge is anytime you combine multiple systems and make them depend on each other, things get complicated.”

To start, the technology does not scale linearly. “When you have more lights, people, systems and plans, the calculations and requirements to create the consistent micro-climate get more challenging,” he says. Running a farm indoors, as opposed to outdoors in consistently warm weather, drives up energy usage, too. Then there’s the feed problem. The vast majority of commercially available fish feed is made from seafood taken from the already fish-depleted ocean. 

Salmon and Baby Chard, Brought to You by a Brooklyn Farm

Green recognizes these challenges: Edenworks is growing only baby and microgreens, high-value crops with short growth cycles. Plans for a larger facility include a more precise “climate delivery” (as opposed to “climate control”) system that will help avoid problems encountered by other vertical farms. For the time being, the company will raise only as much fish as necessary for the salad side, a ratio of 1 pound of seafood for every 10 pounds of produce, until it’s satisfied with the greens business. Automation will restrain labor costs; new farms will use renewable energy technology. 

Edenworks is experimenting with plant-based feed and plans to adopt fish-free feed when it becomes globally available in the next year or so, Green says. Jacqueline Claudia, CEO of aquaculture-based company Love the Wild, says increasingly sustainable feeds options are already available at reasonable prices. Still, she adds, Edenworks is likely ahead of most of the seafood industry. “Anytime you can grow more food, in the space you have, close to market, it’s a win,” she says. “What you’re really talking about is splitting hairs.”

Gordon-Smith is also confident in the company. “I’m optimistic they’re going to be able to navigate the challenges,” he says. While the obstacles are real and not every crop can be grown this way, farms like these are a piece of more sustainable future. “As the climate gets worse, we will need adaptation strategies.”

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