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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: 8 Startups Crafting the Future of Urban Agriculture

By Mary Mazzoni

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads, and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

Vertical farming is not a new concept. Farmers used it for centuries to grow more food in less space. But over the past decade, innovative startup companies reclaimed this forgotten method to bring sprawling farms into controlled spaces in dense urban neighborhoods.

Once a niche market, the urban farming space is booming -- and many upstarts gained fast acclaim only to sputter out. But as the industry gains more profile (it was a hot topic at this year's Sustainable Brands conference in Detroit), a growing number of companies are turning greens into gold.

1. Gotham Greens

In 2008 while living in New York City, longtime friends Viraj Puri and Eric Haley had a big idea. Their concept of indoor, urban greenhouses seemed far-fetched at the time. But as the industry grew around them, their startup Gotham Greens got in solidly on the ground floor and is now known as one of the pioneers of the urban agriculture space.

They earned props from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who assisted the opening of their 60,000-square-foot space in Queens two years ago. That same year, they opened their largest greenhouse yet on Chicago's South Side. And the startup's leafy greens won fast acclaim with shoppers seeking healthy, local produce.

"Simply put, we grow premium quality local produce in high tech, climate controlled greenhouses, year round," Puri told Bond Street earlier this year. "That means, even in the dead of winter, we provide our customers— supermarkets, restaurants, caterers—with fresh produce within a couple of hours of harvest."

2. Bowery Farming

Entrepreneur Irving Fain is paving a new path in urban agriculture: what he calls "post-organic" farming. He claims his high-tech greenhouse can produce crops 100 times faster than conventional agriculture. And it renders pesticides, soil stimulants and other additives obsolete.

Located in Kearney, New Jersey, Bowery Farming grows lush greens and herbs all year round. Its automated system can "sense" when plants are ready to be plucked, ensuring peak freshness and less waste.

So far, the company's 'post-organic' greens are available in two Manhattan restaurants, a pair of Whole Foods Market stores in New Jersey, and Foragers Market in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, 3p's Jan Lee reported.

3. Square Roots

Elon Musk is working on the next generation of electric vehicles, clean energy and space exploration. But his brother took a decidedly different path.

Kimbal Musk ran a pair of all-local restaurants for over a decade. In 2011, he founded a nonprofit to teach kids about agriculture, which has installed gardens in over 300 schools, reports Business Insider.

Earlier this year, the younger Musk took things a step further with an urban farming accelerator that fuses Silicon Valley startup culture with his desire to shake up the American food system.

Based in Brooklyn, New York, Square Roots consists of 10 small farms in steel shipping containers. Young entrepreneurs can partake in the program to test their urban farming ideas in a controlled environment. Business Insider took a tour of the farm in January. You can check it out here.

4. AeroFarms

AeroFarms came on the scene in 2004 and was one of the first in the game. Over 10 years, the startup built eight farms located on delivery routes and near population centers to get produce from farm to plate with fewer transit miles.

When it opened in 2015, the company's headquarters in Newark, New Jersey, was the world's largest indoor vertical farm. Using modular, stacked trays, the new HQ can produce around 2 million pounds of baby greens annually, CEO David Rosenberg told Fast Company. And it yields crops around 130 times faster than conventional agriculture.

“This isn’t about one farm, this is about changing the way we grow food as a society,” Rosenberg told FastCo. “So this is a showcase, where it’s not just about demonstrating the technology but how we grow and how we get to economies of scale to make the economics work.” The company hopes to open 25 farms in the next five years.

5. Plenty

CEO Matt Barnard calls the company's headquarters and greenhouse in South San Francisco "the cathedral." Like Bowery Farming, this Silicon Valley startup claims its practices make things like GMOs, pesticides and soil additives unnecessary.

The company uses heirloom seeds and a controlled, vertical farming setup. Barnard told FastCompany these practices and more make Plenty's concept faster and more scalable than its competitors in the overflowing urban ag space. He claims the startup can grow food 350 times faster than conventional agriculture. Pretty impressive, to say the least.

6. Detroit Dirt

Detroit Dirt is out to turn vacant land parcels into urban farms that feed locals while revitalizing their communities.

While it's primary focus is compost, this 5-year-old company is steadily spreading the community garden model across the city. Its farms may not be as high-tech as some of the others on our list. But unlike congested cities like New York and San Francisco, Detroit has plenty of space to spare -- and here, recommissioning forgotten parcels into productive farmland makes more sense than a multimillion-dollar vertical farm.

7. Freight Farms

Most Americans know South Boston as little more than the setting for a mob movie. But the neighborhood that locals call "Southie" is now home to a burgeoning urban farming sector.

Friends Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara noticed New England's dependence on imported foodstuffs, and South Boston's ongoing problems with food security. In 2011, the pair launched a Kickstarter campaign to help solve both problems with indoor farming.

Soon after, Freight Farms was born. And it's not just one farm. In a style fitting with South Boston, Freight Farms' model is of the "teach a man to fish" variety: The company sells tricked-out freight containers to would-be farmers across the region. The containers are designed to be mostly self-sustaining -- meaning even those without agriculture experience can take part. The Freight Farms team supports these self-made farmers with ongoing trainings and webinars.

Julia Pope, who works in farmer education and support at the organization, told the Guardian that locals can "find the freight containers squeezed between two buildings, in a parking lot, under an overpass or virtually anywhere in the modern urban terrain."

The company has now spread from Boston to Canada, and it estimates that 100 of its mini-farms now operate in the U.S. alone.

8. BrightFarms

BrightFarms grew out of nonprofit New York Sun Works in 2006. Its first project was the Science Barge, "a prototype, sustainable urban farm and environmental education center on the Hudson River." But the startup quickly veered in another direction -- opening a consultancy to help other aspiring urban farmers make their vision a reality.

The company also operates three of its own farms, located in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Illinois. And the concept is generating investor attention, attracting a $30.1 million round of Series C equity financing late last year.

Image credits: 1) and 2) courtesy of Gotham Greens; 3) courtesy of AeroFarms (all press use only) 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni