Chef Dan Barber, co-owner of the Michelin-starred restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, helped pioneer the farm-to-table movement and continues to advocate for sustainable food and agricultural policies. Tech veteran Kimbal Musk runs the Kitchen, a restaurant group, venture fund, and philanthropic organization that develops teaching gardens within municipal school systems. They talk to food editor and entrepreneur Dana Cowin about their differing views for improving agriculture—and our health.
Fast Company: Let’s start by discussing the problem of industrial food. What are the challenges, and what do you think are the solutions?
Kimbal Musk: More than 50 years ago, we created this marketing term: “We have to feed the world.” We ended up taking our farmland and using it for high-calorie, low-nutrition food. We had massive oversupply. It fed high-calorie food especially into our poor. And so we have rampant obesity and diabetes across this country. Twenty-five million acres of land today is used to grow corn ethanol, twice the size of the Central Valley in California. It takes 1 gallon of oil to make 1 gallon of corn ethanol. So it’s neutral at best for the environment, but a total waste of land if you want real food to be grown.
Dan Barber: Have you ever tried corn ethanol? It doesn’t taste very good. My problem, though, is less with the agribusiness conglomerates that run the show Kimbal just described. It’s the culture that feeds into that. It’s easy to blame the corporate entity, the Wizard of Oz controlling everything. Seven weeks ago, I was in Fargo, North Dakota, with a farmer who grows rotations of corn and soy, with some wheat, on 24,000 acres. He said to me, “If you want me to grow a diversity of crops, then tell me who’s going to pick it up from my farm. Which storage facility within 3,000 miles will take buckwheat, rye, or barley—all these crops that we talk about? Which distributors will take it from there? Which marketplace can buy it? Give me an answer to those questions, and I’ll plant whatever you want.” It was quite simple for me: Changing the culture [will require] a new paradigm for agriculture.
FC: What does that new paradigm look like?
KM: I’m a big believer in the young farmer—both soil-based and indoor—but where I’ve seen most growth is in indoor. We came across technology where we can take a [shipping] container and turn it into an indoor farm. It’s the equivalent of about 2 acres [of farmland], but you can locate it in Downtown Brooklyn. We received 1,100 applications to run these farms. We’ve seen a lot of extraordinary enthusiasm if you can bring the farm to the farmer.
DB: The future of produce from a container doesn’t make me hungry. I see benefits [in] recapitalizing our geographic and environmental strength.
KM: The technology for indoor farming is changing so fast. It’s all based on lighting and ergonomics. A year ago, we started working with [urban farming incubator] Square Roots to do about 50 pounds of baby kale in a container a week. Today, if we upgrade to new technology, we can do 300 pounds of kale in the same space.
Using light recipes—one of our farmers re-created the summer of Italy in 2009, which was a famous season for basil. When did it rain? What’s the humidity? He’s been successful in creating a delicious basil that has sold well in New York City. I personally still prefer [basil grown in] soil in a perfect season, but indoors, you can create the perfect season even on a [rainy] day like today.
DB: But I don’t want to create the perfect season. What’s a perfect season? An imperfect season for a tomato is the perfect season for kale. That’s the beauty of an ecological system. You’re growing kale in a half-acre container. We can do the same thing, but we could also grow a cover crop, and we can grow those tomatoes. We could grow a series of grains to make bread and porridge and probably run some cattle over to graze, and have a whole cuisine on that half acre, versus just producing the kale.
KM: You’re preaching to the choir.
DB: You just don’t want to invest in it.
KM: No, it’s not that. I’m leasing 208 acres in downtown Memphis that used to be a chemical cotton farm tended by prisoners. I’m converting it into an organic, soil-based demonstration farm. That community really needs it. There’s tons of farmland around Memphis: 200,000 acres are available if the market is there. But you have to create the market, and we’re trying to do both. In New York City, you’ve got plenty of market, but the land around it is too expensive.
DB: The problem I have is that [indoor farming] ends up diffusing resources. The origin of organic is “organism,” the whole gestalt. It’s not taking the kale and putting it in a silo in a container: That’s the opposite of organic in the truest sense of why it was developed. What scares me is that you’re so good at explaining what you do, those precious resources flow to you. There is plenty of good soil out there. We just need to direct our attention to reinvigorating that culture of agriculture, which is so important for the future of good food.
FC: What do you think about the cuisine that’s being developed from this kind of technology and control?
DB: It’s not just cuisine but culture. The bumper crop that you get from a good year and the mediocre crop that you get from bad weather is where you get cuisine. Beer was created out of barley that was not good enough to make porridge or bread. You see examples of that through every culture, every cuisine. In your scenario, those imperfections don’t arise.
KM: They do in our restaurants, but what we have learned is that people still want a salad in January. We get [greens] shipped in from California or even Australia, which is so crazy. If an indoor farmer can grow arugula in January, we would rather support this person than bring it in from a few thousand miles away.
DB: But wouldn’t you rather convince people not to eat salad in January? I mean that seriously. The culture has shifted. A preponderance of people do not want the tomato or raspberry you can get in January. Wouldn’t you like to help make that happen with salad greens?
KM: At our more upscale restaurant, the Kitchen, we hope to hold a candle to Blue Hill [in seasonality]. At our Next Door restaurants, which are designed to be more affordable, you have to baby-step [those customers] into real food. They’re used to eating cheeseburgers all the time, and we want people to eat more healthily and more sustainably. That does mean a salad in January. I would love to pretend that isn’t the case, but it is.
DB: If I’m an investor, I hear what you’re saying. The idea of growing all of our salad needs across the street in a tower is intoxicating. But if I project forward a decade, I’d rather change that culture. The food culture in America is quite pliable. You wouldn’t be bringing up kale five years ago. Greek yogurt. Sushi. We take on new stuff with dizzying speed.
KM: The money is going to indoor because, from an investor’s perspective, someone who wants to live on a 20-acre farm can make a nice life, but there’s no business there.
FC: Kimbal, you’re an amazing fundraiser. How would you solve Dan’s problem?
KM: I go to the Iowa farm conference every year to meet with these farmers, and 56% of land there is owned by people 65 years or older. When these lovely folks pass on, someone’s going to buy their land. This is trillions of dollars worth of land being used for corn ethanol, a terrible unprofitable use. Their kids don’t want it. Their grandkids don’t even want it; [they’re] in their forties. You’re talking about the great-grandkids who might take it over. It’ll be the most extraordinary transfer of land to the youngest generation. I go there every year and spend two days listening to them complain. If you’re 25 years old and you get 100 acres of land in Iowa, you’ll make $21,000 a year if you are lucky. You should come with me to the conferences, because when the right time comes, we’re going to find out what to do with this land. And you’re talking about millions of acres.
DB: But we already know what the right thing to do is. “Give us the market and we’ll grow whatever you want.” I have heard that from the most conservative old [farmers] and the young folks. It rests on our shoulders to create that change.
This story was adapted from the Fast Company Innovation Festival.