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Sherrell Dorsey headshot

Entrepreneurs Transform Urban Farming with High-Tech Solutions


Tech entrepreneurs are trading in their Google Glasses to try their hand at urban farming in the most unlikely of places. If these disruptive entrepreneurs had it their way, local and fresh food would be grown indoors year-round, providing entire communities and businesses with delicious produce without restriction. Another perk: Crops aren’t at risk of being destroyed by a hurricane, drought or other unpredictable natural disaster.

Surprisingly, high-tech urban farms are popping up around the world in every imaginable space from old warehouses in the Netherlands, to semi conductor factories in Japan and even on the roofs of commercial buildings in Brooklyn. In these futuristic farms, often called vertical and hydroponic farms, you’ll be more apt to find copious LED lighting and smartphone-controlled water meters in lieu of soils and fertilizers.

New York City-based Gotham Greens runs several rooftop greenhouse farms with state-of-the-art climate control and hydroponic growing systems in Brooklyn. They recently opened a 20,000-square-foot farm atop a newly built Whole Foods Market, in which they grow and deliver fresh produce sold in the store. Gotham Greens doesn’t use soil for plant growing, instead they use a hydroponic system of sunlight, oxygen and CO2 that miraculously yields about 20 times what could be cultivated on land, and with about a tenth of the water of conventional agriculture.

“It's on a pretty sophisticated computer control system that has sensors all over the place," cofounder and CEO Viraj Puri shared with Fast Company, "and will deploy lights and fans and shades curtains and heat blankets and irrigation pumps automatically."

Puri (see his TED Talk here) has a background in environmental engineering and spent three years working as a project manager for an environmental firm before launching his business in 2011.

Another startup, Grove Labs, brings urban farming a bit closer to home with its unique design of a system that will allow families to grow their own produce in what they call “groves." Launched by two MIT graduates, the startup recently raised $2 million in “seedling” funding in its efforts to bring sustainable agriculture into the homes of the people that need it the most.

What's driving the trend?

Why are millions of dollars being invested in disruptive agriculture? Quite honestly, the answer is multi-layered depending on who you ask. With the instability of world population and food production, entrepreneurs are hopping on an opportunity to grab their piece of the proverbial pie while also changing the way we grow and deliver our food.

The United Nations estimates that there will be 9 billion people inhabiting the earth by 2050, thus fueling the concern that the current food production system will not keep up with the level of demand. Land used for food production is already exhausted, meaning the only options for growing cities looking to provide access to local and fresh food is to build up or indoors.

Similarly, current production methods breed inefficiencies. Nearly 30 percent of the food produced worldwide is lost or wasted each year due to spoilage before it ever reaches a plate.

Shigeharu Shimamura -- a plant physiologist in Japan growing vegetables inside a transformed 25,000-square-foot Sony semiconductor warehouse using 17,500 LED lights — reports to have successfully reduced the amount of unusable produce from his indoor farm to just 10 percent, compared to 50 percent at outdoor farms.

Also pertinent, urban agriculture, as defined by the Population Reference Bureau, improves food security by providing healthy and plentiful substitutes for purchased food, especially for poor households. “Households that practice urban agriculture are also more likely to have access to a wider variety of nutritious foods such as vegetables and animal products.”

The new model of high-tech farming, albeit innovative, is not without its share of challenges. For instance, despite the increasing levels of efficiencies in the systems like the decrease in water usage and fertilizers, lighting technology and sensors often call for increased energy costs (a problem many of the tech farms are solving with increased use of LED lighting and monitoring technology).

Additionally, not all produce is grown equally. Only certain plants and vegetables can be grown indoors, namely herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms and perhaps cucumbers. Crops such as potatoes and corn that grow better on land have yet to find a home indoors.

Image via TerraSphere Systems Facebook

Sherrell Dorsey is social impact branding and communications strategist, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Visit Sherrell at www.sherrelldosey.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @sherrell_dorsey.

Sherrell Dorsey headshotSherrell Dorsey

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

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