San Francisco startup Cityscape Farms turns vacant urban lots and rooftops into hydroponic greenhouses, producing fresh food for local buyers that tastes better, and is better for them. Mike Yohay, Cityscape Farms CEO, hopes the system, which produces better-tasting produce and helps make cities cleaner, will spread the word about the value of sustainable food.
Fast Company: What’s your definition of sustainable food?
Mike Yohay: I would say the cornerstone of sustainable food is transparency, meaning, the externalities of the production of the food are not hidden from the consumer. Without that information, the consumer, the eater, they don’t know what’s going on. It’s a double-edged sword. You can be sustainable, but if you haven’t opened up the book, people don’t know. Or you have a lack of transparency and you’re polluting or exploiting the work force, and no one can point a finger at it. There are a lot of definitions that come close to defining what sustainable food is about, but transparency is just a big part of it for me. And there’s regeneration for the environment. We’re not just taking, we’re giving back.
FC: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing sustainable food right now?
MY: It’s about getting people to buy into the concept on a really mainstream scale, and to overcome artificially low pricing. Because of our subsidies models, externalities are not factored into the cost of food. It’s about getting a committed consumer base that weighs the environmental and social impact of food as much as it does the cost. It will be a challenge, especially in the current economy. People are recalibrating their values. I’m somebody that, when I go shopping, I go right to the natural food store. I spend a lot of money on food. It’s something I truly believe is important on so many levels, which is not to say that I’m going to do it frivolously, but I understand that you get what you pay for.
FC: What does Cityscape farms do to tackle that problem?
MY: It goes back to the issue of transparency. Being in a city, people can see us and we’re part of the community. Eighty percent of our country lives in cities, which means the overwhelming majority of people who eat food are in cities. Being here, being a community member of cities like San Francisco, means people will have full access to our operation, right down to the fact that our greenhouses are transparent. It’s both figurative and literal. As for cost, that will be a challenge for us because were small. It’s hard to compete with companies producing such vast quantities of food. We will temper that in a sense with having direct relationships with our consumers in the way big guys cannot. Education is a critical piece of convincing consumers. It can happen on a grassroots level. Additionally, if you look at the real cost of food, it’s not going to the farmer. It’s going to the petrochemicals company, the packaging company—they make as much, if not more, than the farmers. We want to trim the fat out of that model by being hyper-local, delivering our product within a couple miles as opposed to couple thousand miles.
FC: What attracted Cityscape to hydroponic farming?
MY: It’s the kind of farming that’s incredibly innovative and resource economical. One of the things that concerns me very much is soil, soil depletion, and erosion. We’ll have no impact this way because we don’t use soil.
The second attraction is about water. Agriculture accounts for 70% of water use worldwide. That’s a tremendous amount, and these big companies are rewarded for misusing water because it’s given to them at a reduced cost, with no requirement for them to be efficient. Hydroponic farming uses a fraction of the water, because it’s a closed system. You’re not irrigating fields, but actually giving plants as much water as they need. What they don’t use gets funneled back into the system. Those two were huge, as was the fertilizer requirement. The overwhelming use of fossil fuels in farming isn’t in transportation, but fertilizer. So once again, hydroponic farming offers solutions because it uses a tremendously smaller amount of fertilizer than conventional farming.
On the flip side, it is well suited for cities. You can do it in a greenhouse, you can do it anywhere. You can put it on a vacant lot; you can put it on a rooftop. For cities with very few open spaces—and if there is soil it’s typically laden with heavy metals—we were able to circumvent those challenges.
Lastly, hydroponically produced produce is picked when it’s ripe—the taste and the nutrients of those fruits and vegetables are higher than fruits and vegetables that were picked even a few days before they were sold. Ours are picked and sold the same day.
FC: You’re only in San Francisco for now. What’s the response been like?
MY: It’s our home base, and we have plans to expand, but we’re going as fast as we can. We want to be really invested in communities where we operate. From a consumer standpoint, people are very excited. Urban farming is a very hot topic. It’s a concept people believe in, and they think it’s a needed component. San Francisco is a place that’s historically very countercultural, so anything that gives people alternatives is highly appreciated here. And creating green jobs in the area is exciting for people.
Expansion, however, is a ways off. I get emails and phone calls from cities saying, “This city needs it as much, if not more, than San Francisco,” and in some cases I agree. But we’re a startup, and we’re working our butts off to get this off the ground, and we don’t want to stretch ourselves too thin. It would be a disservice. We’ll expand when the time feels right. There’s no end of opportunity when it comes to creating localized food systems in an era where people are truly seeking out alternative ways to spend their money, and where environmental concerns seem to be growing by leaps and bounds. Turning that conviction into dollars spent will be the ultimate litmus test for this idea.
FC: What did you eat for breakfast today?
MY: I had whole grain toast with Tofutti, which is a soy cream cheese, and fresh avocado, and some organic coffee, French roast. I’m vegan, so it both limits and presents interesting challenges for eating.
Read more of Eat-onomics, part of our Inspired Ethonomics  series:
- Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm 
- Paul Willis of Niman Ranch 
- Dave Corsi, VP of Produce at Wegmans 
- Roger Doiron, Founder of Kitchen Gardeners International