It’s an odd experience to be walking among New York’s skyscrapers looking for a farm. You will not be looking for sun-drenched fields or work-worn equipment. You will most certainly not be following the gamey odor of horses or cows. Instead, you’ll reach 77 Worth Street, in the heart of the city’s quiet Tribeca neighborhood, and probably assume you’ve misunderstood the instructions sent to you. Do not doubt yourself: you’ve reached your destination.
Beneath the luxurious New American restaurant Atera and past the eye-and-ear infirmary, the swimming pool for dogs, and the veterinarian office, you’ll find the 1,200-square-foot space that makes up the two rooms of the vertical hydroponic garden that’s currently producing much of the rare edible flowers and herbs served at eateries all across New York. Welcome to Farm.One.
The bright, LED-lit space is filled with flavorful plants and is pretty small (think of it as a single windowless basement room vertically filled to capacity with plants) and incredibly warm; yet, it surprisingly doesn’t feel cramped or clustered. Perusing the four giant stacks of expandable shelves that display the leafy products feels like a walk through a forest. Different colors, smells and presentations make up this sensory-heavy experience. And, for $50, you can experience this secret farm all for yourself.
Farm.One has been occupying part of the basement at 77 Worth Street and growing plants hydroponically (more on that later) since November 2017. The rare flowers and herbs are grown for chefs working at local restaurants big and small: spots like Butter, Pizza Loves Emily, and Double Zero have been incorporating these uncommon ingredients into their menus, sending their chefs to visit the farm and receiving deliveries in biodegradable containers at around 3pm daily.
So what, exactly, is a vertical hydroponic farm? The staff of Farm.One grows between one hundred and two hundred species of herbs and flowers at any one time using LED lighting that allows them to stack layers of produce on top of each other (that’s the “vertical” part) using no soil at all and transferring nutrients to the organisms through a water solution (that’s the “hydroponic” portion). That means that you won’t be seeing any dirt or chemical pesticides in here. What you will notice throughout the space, though, are tons of ladybugs. Called “beneficial insects,” they are brought in to eat the other bugs that find their way to the basement.
The brain behind the project belongs to one Robert Laing, a tech entrepreneur with virtually no experience in the food or farm world.
“On TV, I had seen people grow lettuces and other plants under LED lights,” says the British-American chief executive and founder of Farm.One over the phone. “I just thought it would be interesting to apply these techniques to specialty produce. In the beginning, we didn’t really know what we were doing—we were growing things that no one had really grown indoors or hydroponically before. But we were very focused on flavor and just making sure that the quality of the product was really, really good.”
The New York campus of the Institute of Culinary Education proved to be the perfect prototype location for Laing’s concept back in April of 2016. Eventually outgrowing that space, which still functions as a research and development farm to test out new plants and techniques, Farm.One landed in the basement of the Tribeca building after Atera, the restaurant upstairs, became a regular client and offered the vacant rooms downstairs.
Fast-forward a few months and the requests to tour the farm—which, of course, does not resemble the sort of farms one often visits on middle school trips—became frequent enough to convince Laing to turn them into a revenue stream.
For $50, you’ll get to walk through the farm wearing a lab coat, disposable shoes, and hair covers while sipping on seemingly unlimited amounts of Prosecco. Most importantly, you’ll get to taste some of the weirdest, most bizarre, and incredibly exciting plants you’ll likely ever get to sample.
Depending on the crop schedule, the tasting portion of the tour will include a different batch of herbs and flowers during each session. A recent group of visitors had the chance to eat a purple oxalis—a deeply purple plant boasting a tangy sour taste with citrus overtones; a Nepitella—native to Tuscany, it looks like a large-leaved oregano that tastes like basil; and the green wave mustard—a vibrant green plant that strongly tastes like mustard and horseradish.
Following the various tastings throughout the tour, one question lingered in this skeptic New Yorker’s mind: Why would one want to eat something that isn’t grown in nature? In an era resolutely dedicated to all things local and organic, wouldn’t consuming something man-made break that devotion to authenticity?
“I understand,” says Laing when confronted with the doubt. “This is the opposite of the romantic idea of going to the land. I think the first thing is that, when we started, we didn’t know if chefs would buy into this thing because we thought they might be considering that [the products] were not from the soil. The response from the chefs was ‘Oh, this tastes very good and much better than the stuff I would normally get from the soil.’ The second thing is that the nutrients that the plants are getting here are very, very similar to the compost in soil because they are bio-digestive plant materials. There is some fish waste, there is some fat waste in there, so it’s actually a very organic mix of nutrients and that’s what makes it taste really good.” He explained that, although one could technically use chemical nutrients in a hydroponic farm and notice rapid plant growth, the flavor of the plants would likely be bland.
“It’s a philosophical question,” Laing continues passionately, clearly addressing the matter for the umpteenth time. “I think that the reality of life now is that we live in a constructed city, which is all man-made, and we use high-tech phones and we expect to be able to fly to Dubai and eat sushi. I think it’s maybe not the romantic vision that we all have but, in terms of feeding millions and millions and millions of people in very tight cities and very different situations, this is the kind of solution that makes sense.”
Laing is also careful to note that Farm.One—which has grown over 500 different species of plants—might be the only way to increase the variety of produce offerings to shoppers. “The diversity of produce you get in a food market, even a really good [one], is pretty small,” he notes. So will the farm, which is actively looking to open in cities across the world (three yet-undisclosed locations are in the works), eventually be growing more common items like lettuces and fruits? “We like growing […] weird and wonderful things,” says Laing. As for opening a storefront accessible by the average shopper and not a chef looking to buy in bulk, the founder mentions the current lack of space: “We would like to do something like that at some stage, […] we just don’t have the space.”
So, for now, we’ll have to satisfy our cravings for uncommon produce by touring Farm.One or eating at one of the restaurants it serves, which is certainly not a bad deal. We won’t spoil the ending for you, but those seeking the weirdest and the most wonderful should look forward to tasting a specific flower grown on premise and not yet sold to any restaurants. Heads up: you might not be able to properly use your mouth for a half hour or so afterward.