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How COVID-19 fed the dream of growing food at home

Sales of hydroponic gardens have boomed during the pandemic, but do high-tech solutions such as these only further fuel inequality?

How COVID-19 fed the dream of growing food at home
[Source Images: courtesy of Lettuce Grow]
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This story is part of Home Bound, a series that examines Americans’ fraught relationship with their homes—and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hit the reset button. Read more here.

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When COVID-19 struck the United States, people rushed to grocery stores to stock up on food, only to find that many shelf-stable items such as beans, rice, and flour were sold out. It was the first time many of us were forced to consider where our food comes from—and how vulnerable the global food system really is.

These food shortages spurred many Americans to consider growing their own food for the first time. Some planted vegetables in their backyards and windowsills, while others went for high-tech hydroponic gardens.

In the years before the pandemic, startups developed these compact self-watering, self-fertilizing, gardening machines that were aesthetically pleasing to boot. During the lockdowns, sales of these products—which start around $800—spiked, prompting venture capitalists to pour millions into the industry.

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But as more and more people begin to anticipate the end of the COVID-19 era, it remains to be seen whether these high-tech gardens have staying power or whether they were just a short-lived novelty. And more broadly, it’s worth asking whether these devices can be a tool for making agriculture more sustainable and equitable, or whether they’re just another toy for the Whole Foods class.

[Photo: courtesy of Freight Farms]

The hydroponics revolution

Hydroponics, which simply means growing plants in a solution of water and nutrients instead of soil, have been around since at least 600 BCE. But in the late 1920s, William Gericke of the University of California modernized these techniques, creating farms that require less space and up to 95% less water than soil-based farms but yield much bigger harvests by optimizing light, water, and nutrients. During World War II, the U.S. military built hydroponic gardens to grow vegetables for troops in locations that weren’t suited to traditional agriculture, such as Ascension Island, a refueling station in the Atlantic Ocean, where soldiers grew thousands of pounds of cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and radishes each month, staving off malnutrition.

COVID-19 prompted some countries to use hydroponics to deal with disruptions in the global supply chain. The Netherlands and Singapore, which have limited agricultural land and rely largely on imports, invested billions during the pandemic to build industrial hydroponics farms on rooftops and parking lots. In the United States, hydroponics are still a small business, with about 3,000 businesses generating around $800 million in revenue, a small sliver of the $451 billion from traditional farming. But analysts are banking that the industry is poised to grow.

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Over the last five years, a bevy of startups—including Rise Gardens, Gardyn, Lettuce Grow, Aerogarden, and Click-and-Grow—have launched to create hydroponic systems that can fit inside a home. That’s a departure from the focus over the past century on large-scale hydroponics farms.

The devices are expensive, and before the pandemic, it was a tough sell convincing consumers to spend nearly $1,000 on a machine that might take years to pay off. But COVID-19 changed the game, as people around the world worried about food shortages. “The pandemic made people pay attention to where their food comes from and accelerated their interest in producing their own food,” says Nina Ichikawa, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, which promotes food equity. “This new awareness is a good thing.”

Many of these startups doubled or tripled their sales over the past year, and some investors are capitalizing on this interest. True Ventures, which funds Peloton and Blue Bottle, invested $2.6 million in Rise Gardens; Gardyn raised $10 million from JAB Holding Company, the largest shareholder in Keurig. And right before the pandemic, Estonia-based Click & Grow received $11 million in funding from Y Combinator and Ingka Group, which operates 367 Ikea stores in Europe.

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[Photo: courtesy of Lettuce Grow]

A personal hydroponic garden

Despite my lifelong black thumb, I decided to test Lettuce Grow, a six-foot-tall hydroponic garden that looks like a white sculpture with plants artfully growing on it. I’m shocked by how much food I’ve grown: My family of three now eats freshly plucked lettuces with each meal and yet our harvest is so plentiful, we’ve had to share our veggies with neighbors.

The beauty of hydroponic systems is that they’re designed to run on their own, with minimal intervention from the owner. My machine automatically waters and fertilizes the plants by pumping a nutrient-rich solution through the system for 15 minutes every hour. The high-efficiency LED light rings control how much light the plants receive, adding only a few dollars to our monthly electricity bill. All I have to do is top up the water in the base and add a few spoonfuls of plant food every week.

When it comes to seeds, all of these hydroponic startups are also, effectively, subscription programs. You need to buy seeds or seedlings from the company for about $2 apiece to replace the plants you’ve fully harvested. This takes anywhere from three weeks to several months depending on their growth cycle. “You get to enjoy the beauty of watching living things grow, without needing any expertise in farming,” says Jacob Pechenik, who cofounded Lettuce Grow in 2019 with the actress Zooey Deschanel.

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And these startups aren’t just focused on making the machines smaller, they’ve also made them beautiful. Lettuce Grow, for instance, worked with the designer Pip Tompkin—who previously designed the Nokia M Series—to create a stand with vegetables and herbs cascading from the sides, much like you’d see on a plant wall. Rise Gardens partnered with TBD Innovations, a firm made up of former IDEO designers, to create a system that looks like a white cabinet with rows of plants above it. “We knew that our garden needed to look attractive for people to consider bringing them into their homes,” says Hank Adams, the founder and CEO of Rise Gardens. “We wanted it to be beautiful and minimalist, so you’d be happy to have it whether you live in your studio apartment or large home.”

Rise Gardens, Gardyn, and Lettuce Grow all created modular systems, so customers can start with just a few levels of plants and expand over time. Pechenik says his goal was for Lettuce Grow to replace up to a fifth of a household’s produce. (I can attest that our 24-plant unit easily achieves this for a family of three.) For those who can afford it, these machines generate fruits and vegetables that are far tastier and more nutritious than what you’d normally buy at a store. Studies show that most produce loses 30% of its nutrients three days after harvest, and much of what we find in the grocery is much older than that.

Hydroponics provides an alternative to industrial agriculture, which has dominated our food system since the 1960s. Factory-like farms are bad for the planet because they deplete the soil, consume a lot of water, spew toxic pesticides into the environment, and contribute to deforestation. Transporting food around the country also generates carbon emissions and creates a lot of waste, since produce goes bad along the way. Half of all U.S. produce is thrown out. For me, one of the best parts about having a hydroponic garden at home is that we’ve virtually eliminated waste and have to make fewer trips to the grocery store.

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Food inequity

For now, most of these devices have gone to people interested in small-scale gardening. But the founders believe their products have the ability to disrupt our broken food system, if they’re able to scale. “We are not in the gardening business,” says FX Rouxel, Gardyn’s founder and CEO. “We’re trying to reinvent how people can grow their own food at scale. If we have solutions that are compelling enough, we believe we can change people’s food habits and reduce their dependence on the grocery store.” Gardyn launched in early 2020, and in its first year, Rouxel says its hundreds of customers grew 70,000 pounds of produce.

But Berkeley Food Institute’s Ichikawa argues that we should be skeptical about whether these high-end hydroponic systems can actually change the food system. Most people don’t have the money to invest hundreds of dollars in this hardware, and those are exactly the people who could most benefit. A tenth of households experience food insecurity and more than 23.5 million Americans live in neighborhoods without easy access to a supermarket. “Rich people are willing to spend their money on many new-fangled technologies that don’t necessarily impact the rest of the industry for better or for worse,” she says. “It’s just a new business opportunity for these startups.”

She points out that hydroponics doesn’t have to be so expensive or complicated. In fact, a lot of innovation around cost-effective small-scale hydroponics came from cannabis growers, many of whom were people of color operating underground. Entrepreneurs and scientists have been developing affordable DIY hydroponics in Africa, particularly Kenya. Startups such as Hydroponics Africa have built systems that don’t require electricity and use inexpensive, locally available materials, including fungi-resistant aluminum trays. “These [U.S.] startups are creating a flashier, fancier version of systems that have actually been around for a long time,” Ichikawa says. “There are a lot of low-cost solutions that have emerged from the ground up, from the communities that depend on these technologies to survive.”

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For now, Pechenik tries to make his technology available to more people by donating one Lettuce Grow machine for every 10 sold to schools, nonprofits, and community organizations. He says they’ve distributed several hundred already, along with $1 million in donations. Rise Garden, meanwhile, has launched a smaller machine that starts at $279. “I compare this to the early days of personal computing, when a laptop was very expensive, and yet now, laptops are widely available” Adams says. “As hydroponic gardens scale, the cost of manufacturing will go down.”

One answer might come from systems that are large enough to feed a community, rather than a single family, and thus are more cost-effective. Take, for instance, Freight Farms, which debuted the first hydroponic farm inside a shipping container in 2012. The company sells $130,000 containers that can generate the same amount of food as three and a half acres of farmland, enough to feed hundreds of people. Long-term, these systems are more economical given their scale and could help solve food insecurity problems. The city of Boston, for instance, bought five Freight Farm systems in Mattapan, where 20% of the population lives below the poverty line, to create a high-tech farming co-op. “Our farms are being used as part of community redevelopment,” says Rick Vanzura, Freight Farms’ CEO.

During 2020, Freight Farms’ sales tripled, and the company expects business to triple again in 2021. Last year, it landed $15 million in Series B funding, bringing its total to $28 million. Vanzura believes that for hydroponics to have an impact on agriculture, there will need to be farms of different sizes, ranging from individual gardens to industrial farms. In fact, Freight Farms advised Lettuce Grow about growing techniques, drawing from its decade-worth of data. “We need to cooperate as an industry to take the best of what we each do and help each other get better,” he says.

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As hydroponics grows in popularity, Ichikawa says that it’s important to remember that it is not the only, or best, solution to cultivating food for a community. The poor tend to be most impacted by problems in the food system and suffer from health issues due to lack of access to nutritious food. This is why organizations such as hers advocate for food sovereignty, which means empowering communities to take charge of their own food supply through things such as local ownership of grocery stores and backyard or community gardening.

While midsize hydroponic systems could be a tool for tackling food insecurity, she worries that it could create a new barrier to entry, making access to fresh food seem even more out of reach. “Food sovereignty can absolutely protect us from the instabilities from pandemics or climate change, so any way that folks can feel autonomy over their food supply is a good thing,” Ichikawa says. “But you don’t need a fancy hydroponic system to do this. You could do it just as easily with a bucket of soil by a window.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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