The Hudson Valley is quite familiar with what it means to be farm-to-table, but what if the farm is also practically right next to the table, even in the more urban and metro areas?

Vertical farming via high-tech shipping containers is emerging as a new solution for businesses seeking to grow their own produce in a way that shrinks the necessary agricultural footprint while maximizing yield and reducing produce travel time. Here in the Hudson Valley, a 20 by 20-foot shipping container is being used to grow up to 400 pounds of fresh produce a month at Farmers & Chefs restaurant in Poughkeepsie.

Last year, the restaurant partnered with an Israel-based agro-tech company Vertical Field to grow herbs and vegetables for its dishes in a new and innovative way. The startup, established in 2006, uses technology to create innovative growing methods to improve food supplies in urban areas around the world, working mostly in the Middle East and Europe but also recently in the United States — including right here in Dutchess County.

Poughkeepsie’s Farmers & Chefs is one of the first businesses in the Hudson Valley to try shipping container farming. The restaurant’s 20 by 20-foot climate-controlled container (pictured above) produces about 400 pounds of fresh produce a month.

Aaron Lacan

John Lekic, chef and owner of Farmers & Chefs, grows everything from buttercrunch lettuce, kale and baby arugula to herbs like rosemary, sage and basil in his enclosed vertical farm. The container is divided into four growing fields and is set on the restaurant’s property for customers to see, which has drawn even more interest to Farmers & Chefs as of late.

So why vertical farming? 

Vertical Field is just one manufacturer specializing in reimagining steel shipping containers into enclosed, climate-controlled farms that are powered by LED lights instead of the sun, essentially supercharging a growing environment. Freight Farms and Grow Pod Solutions, other manufacturers, also tout this farming approach for its lower burden on farm labor and land, and for the higher output per square foot.

Shipping container farming is climate-controlled, powered by LED lights instead of the sun and can produce high yield in a small space. But humidity and start-up infrastructure costs can be challenges.

Shipping container farming is climate-controlled, powered by LED lights instead of the sun and can produce high yield in a small space. But humidity and start-up infrastructure costs can be challenges.

Aaron Lacan

“It’s a dream come true for chefs to be involved from the seed to the plate,” said Lekic. “It’s a great experience when you grow your own ingredients.”

Lekic pursued vertical farming after coming across Vertical Field during an exhibition showcasing a number of Israeli-based companies involved in food and agriculture at the Culinary Institute of America in late 2019.

Before the shipping container arrived at the Poughkeepsie restaurant, Lekic sourced vegetables from nearby farms and grew herbs in small outdoor gardening beds on site. However, Lekic found that it wasn’t enough yield, especially in the summer, and he often collaborated with additional farms to fill the gap. With a shipping container for growing, the restaurant is able to produce enough of what they need and on site – a key benefit for Lekic.

“There is a huge importance of having urban farms where the demand is,” said Lekic. “The problem with today’s agriculture is that everything has to travel. Most people are not aware of it, but depletion of the nutrients in our food is a huge issue.”

If you harvest spinach, it would be full of vitamin C that same day, Lekic said. But that changes dramatically just 48 hours later, when that nutrient is mostly gone. (A 2013 study by the University of California showed that spinach could lose as much as 90 percent of vitamin C in a single day.)

Farmers & Chefs restaurant grows everything from buttercrunch lettuce, kale and baby argula to rosemary and sage in its on-site shipping container.

Farmers & Chefs restaurant grows everything from buttercrunch lettuce, kale and baby argula to rosemary and sage in its on-site shipping container.

Aaron Lacan

By growing the restaurant’s produce steps away from the kitchen, “it’s as fresh as it gets,” said Lekic.

Farmers & Chefs received its shipping container farm right around the same time that COVID-19 hit last year, which Lekic said actually worked out well, as it gave him a chance to learn the ins and outs of vertical farming during a period that was quiet for his restaurant. By April, he was harvesting the first crops.

“Overall, the goal of vertical farming is to reduce the cost of healthy and fresh food to the retailer and to the end buyer as well,” said Vertical Field marketing director Noa Winston. “Since vertical farming reduces transportation costs, food losses, inventory inconsistencies, and price fluctuations due to climate, natural disasters, and other crises that create shortages, the retailer with vertical farming can benefit from consistency, security, and ownership over the entire supply chain.”

In another regional example, Evergreen Market, a grocery store in Monsey in Rockland County, partnered with Vertical Field to grow vegetables that ultimately stocked the store’s produce aisles, while also inviting customers to view its micro-farm when they visit the store.

Cost and maintenance concerns

This farming approach isn’t for everyone and there are drawbacks. “While it does offer some solutions to things like land access — which is, frankly, a huge barrier to the farming we advocate for here in the Hudson Valley — there is a lot of infrastructure needed,” said Kathleen Finlay, president of Glynwood, a center for regional food and farming based in Cold Spring.

“That brings a whole other set of challenges — how to create enterprises with a high capital upfront cost, how to get sustainable systems. It’s a different suite of challenges than more land-based production.”

Indeed, the start-up costs for an on-site shipping container farms aren’t cheap, although businesses say savings can be realized downstream by the reduced costs of paying produce purveyors for food that a restaurant or business is now growing itself.

Freight Farms’ 2021 Greenery S model costs $149,000, which doesn’t include the shipping fee. Additional start-up costs can vary depending on where its being shipped, training packages selected, and any extras. Vertical Field would not disclose the fees associated with its model.

Plus, there is a bit of a learning curve when farming in a shipment container. Lekic played around with different variables, like what was best to grow at the same time, to see what would produce the highest yield.

“It’s as fresh as it gets,” said John Lekic of Farmers & Chefs, pictured above, about the new way of farming.

Aaron Lacan

“For my purposes, I learned to stick with only two to four items – mostly greens,” said Lekic about his growing. “It makes the most sense based on my demand.”

Maintenance is an ongoing effort with an enclosed growing system that requires constant electricity and temperature controls to assure optimal growing conditions. “It’s always work,” said Lekic.

Over the past year, Lekic had to work out some kinks and issues, like making sure the air conditioning and heat levels were favorable to growing produce year-round. Just like traditional farming, some seasons might require more work — a vertical farm in the summer, for example, would have increased humidity that could negatively affect plants if not properly controlled.

While some growers may need back-up plans for electricity outages, Lekic doesn’t foresee issues there because he is connected to the main restaurant building, which runs on a hospital-grid electricity system. Just in case, he has two generators that he could connect to if needed.

These drawbacks are outweighed by the ability to grow such consistent produce yield himself on site, he said, and the built-in technology features like being able to water plants by pushing a button on his phone. Lekic said overall it’s pretty easy to operate and monitor, so much so that the restaurant is looking into upgrading its original container to the newer version of the same size, and purchasing a second container.

“I’m interested in doing a mushroom container,” said Lekic. “There is the possibility of that. It’s a completely different kind of experience, but we would be super excited.”

DIY shipping container farming

While the hefty price tag of some farming shipping containers might be too prohibitive for some, others are riffing off of elements of tech-first farming for their own DIY growing methods.

KC Sullivan, a New Jersey-based mushroom farmer, created his own vertical farming environment out of an abandoned 40-foot-length shipping container that was used for storage at the Whitechapel Projects in Long Branch. Sullivan, who often collaborates with Tivoli Mushrooms here in the Hudson Valley, decided to create his own container farm by spray foaming it, sealing the floors, putting in an HVAC system, adding lighting and installing a misting mechanism.

He estimated the costs to be between $15,000 and $20,000 — not insignificant but far cheaper than a new shipping container already turbo-charged for farming.

“It was challenging,” said Sullivan. “There is no real guidebook or instruction manual on how to create a container mushroom farm. It was all about brainstorming how we wanted it to be.”

While it’s only been a year since mushrooms have been grown out of this urban shipping container, Sullivan is happy with the high-yield results: he’s growing around 400 to 500 pounds of mushrooms a week. Mushroom container farming is slightly different from growing vegetables or herbs; for example, Sullivan doesn’t grow compost mushrooms, so there is no dirt necessary.

“We grow hardwood varieties, so it’s exclusively on red oak saw dust that is supplemented with agricultural byproducts,” said Sullivan. “You mix the two together with water, pasteurize it to kill off any pathogens, inoculate it with the strain of mushroom you’re looking to grow. It goes through an incubation period in a separate room [outside of the container], and then it goes to the fruiting room, which is the container and where it will be harvested.”

Just like Lekic, Sullivan also has run into some maintenance hiccups. The waterlines froze during the winter, which was a “big challenge and setback,” leading to a starved off humidification system, costing him around 100 to 150 pounds of crop.

Despite that hurdle, Sullivan also says the container can stand up against storms because it’s “built like a tank,” while regular farmland could be vulnerable to severe thunderstorms and potential flooding.

“One tool in the toolbox”

While an exciting option for some, vertical farming is “one tool in the toolbox” and it’s important to not forget about the benefits of traditional farming, said Finlay of Glynwood.

Finlay applauds any effort to produce food “that aligns with environmental sustainability,” but doesn’t think vertical farming will ever replace traditional farming or even fix the lack of land available for production.

Still, any effort to grow fresh food for more people is a win overall.

“We need more healthy food, accessible and affordable to more people,” said Finlay. “As much as vertical farming can play a role to that, I think that’s wonderful.”

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