Growing microgreens in New York's urban jungle

A unique vertical plant factory in Manhattan is growing flowers, herbs and microgreens for New York City's finest restaurants.VIDEO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - "What's that smell?" is the first thing you wonder as you walk down a long subway-tiled hallway in the basement of an office building in Manhattan and into a warm, earthy, sweet and herbal fragrance that fills the 1,200-sq-ft space that is the vertical farm, Farm.One.

Then, the overwhelming colors from bespoke flowers, stems and roots from herbs and microgreens greet your eyes. These flowers have never touched the earth nor felt the warmth of the sun.

Instead, Farm.One created a completely controlled environment where they use only the seed, water, and nutrients to grow their produce in vertically stacked hydroponic trays under light-emitting diodes (LED) on rolling racks.

"We can use LED lights to give the plants a perfect day of sunlight year round," said Farm.One's CEO and founder, Robert Laing. "It's also kind of cool because we can stack these growing areas so that we can have a much more efficient use of space. And so in this small room, which is just, 1,200 sq ft in this farm, we can grow crops that might take a whole big field to grow."

There are no pesticides or chemicals or soil used in the process as in traditional farming. But the company uses materials like coconut husks to prop the plants up and give them structure and beneficial insects like ladybugs and tiny parasitic wasps to control any pests. For nutrients, the company uses organic plant-based materials with fish waste and even bat excrement to give more of a natural home for the plants.

Farm.One was started in 2016 in a 300-sq-ft space in the Institute of Culinary Education by Laing, who was a software developer before he tasted a papalo leaf at a Santa Monica farmer's market and embarked on a new career of bringing fresh herbs and edible flowers to New York City's finest restaurants.

The results have been well received. Farm.One's produce was all sold out in its first space in a matter of months, which put them in their second location at 77 Worth Street, below the building in New York's Tribeca neighbourhood.

"We can harvest and deliver same day," said Laing. "And so the product isn't sitting on a truck, it's not in cold storage, it's super fresh. And so these chefs can really taste the difference. And it's exciting for them to taste something that's almost like in their back garden of their restaurant."

Farm.One's website boasts it can deliver by bicycle to 90 per cent of all New York City restaurants within 30 minutes. Otherwise, deliveries are made only by foot or train, creating no emissions.

Fine-dining restaurants like Daniel, Atera, Marea, Ai Fiori, Uchu, Le Coucou and Jungsik get regular deliveries from Farm.One several times a week to ensure their produce goes straight from the farm to a diner's fork in hours.

But the product has to be perfect.

"You're just looking for little microscopic imperfections because I'm ultimately the one who has to be in front of these chefs, and they're very discerning and very demanding," said Farm.One's sales manager, Wilson Gibbons, who also makes deliveries. "We need to make sure that what they asked for is what they're getting. If anyone's not afraid to tell you they're unhappy with something, it's a chef."

Wilson said he tries not to charge the chefs for products they don't use if it doesn't meet their requirements.

At two-Michelin starred restaurant Jungsik, pastry chef Eunji Lee uses marigold flowers to adorn and accentuate the flavour of her petit fours. The flower petals can be no larger than the size of the home button on an iPhone.

"If it's too big, the marigold flower's flavour can be stronger, too much strong, so that's why it should be this size," she said. "For every single plate, we need precision and perfection, so we're always working for that and we're always asking them (Farm.One), we need this size, this colour, this length and every time, they bring to us the perfect one that we want."

So far, Farm.One has focused on growing microgreens, herbs and flowers in Manhattan for chefs in New York City. For patrons who want to explore the farm, Farm.One gives tours and a glass of Prosecco for US$50 (S$65). The next step will be to build additional farms in new cities first in the US, then around the world.