As much as city-dwellers might like the idea of buying vegetables grown on local rooftops or vacant lots, it’s hard to make urban agriculture commercially viable. Farming actually takes a lot of work and care, and the infrastructure and workforce just aren’t there in most cities to make urban agriculture happen at scale.
But a startup called Cityblooms hopes to help change that. The company makes small, modular “growbots,” lightweight greenhouses that can squeeze into vacant city corners and grow food more efficiently than the typical community garden. The hydroponic units are cloud-connected, so farmers can remotely track the growth of their crops, as well as control irrigation, humidity, and plant nutrition.
Unlike a neighborhood garden, the system can grow very large volumes of produce. A cluster of 16 units can grow around five tons of lettuce in a year. “Urban gardening is a wonderful community-building exercise, but from a technology perspective, it’s largely like going back to the Stone Age,” says Nick Halmos, founder and CEO of Cityblooms.
“You’re not getting any of the yield improvements from either automated hydroponics, or from the large mechanization that’s been developed to make farming profitable in the industrial agriculture sphere,” he says. “We’re bringing proven commercial agriculture technology and just reformatting it into a form factor that’s more compatible with the nuances of urban development.”
The tiny growing units also have advantages over large greenhouses being built on some urban rooftops. While greenhouse technology might weigh 50 pounds per square foot–far more than an average roof is designed to handle–the Cityblooms system weighs between 15 to 17 pounds per square foot. The units can also be built around whatever other equipment happens to be on the roof.
“The modularity also gives us the ability to scale very easily,” Halmos says. “So we can size a farming installation appropriately to the demands and consumption patterns and profiles of the community that the farm is built to serve.”
Recent studies have highlighted the fact that urban gardening isn’t always safe; a Cornell University study that looked at New York City gardens found unsafe levels of lead in almost half of root vegetables. Air pollution causes more problems. By sealing off the plants in a greenhouse and using recirculated water, Cityblooms is able to guarantee food safety. An independent safety agency automatically certifies any urban farmer using the system’s software.
While the company doesn’t believe that urban agriculture can ever replace conventional ag, they think that it can play a critical role for some crops, like leafy greens, that degrade quickly. “I see a real potential to start moving some of the production of these highly perishable food categories closer to urban centers to reduce food waste, food miles, and ultimately deliver a more nutritious, higher quality product to consumers,” Halmos says.
That would free up critical farmland, like California’s Salinas Valley, for crops that are unlikely to fit well into cities, like almonds or potatoes. It could also play a role in helping the world grow enough food for an increasing population. By 2050, when the global population hits 9 billion, farms will need to produce 70% more food at the same time they’re facing new challenges like water scarcity, pricier land, and a declining supply of cheap labor as workers are finally paid more fairly.
“We’ve tried to chart a course with our development that gives flexibility and ease of installation so we can get farming happening now,” he says. “We’ve all seen the pictures of rooftop skyscrapers that grow food, and that’s a wonderful goal, but is that going to happen within the next 50 to 60 years? Maybe not. We’ve really been trying to identify the solutions that get us moving in the right direction.”
The company is currently piloting its first system on a corporate campus in the Bay Area. “The employees love it,” he says. “There’s a human element that people want to reengage with their food…they’re always coming out to see what we’re growing.”