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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Corey-Ferrini

Urban Agriculture and Hydroponics 101

With a passion for creating nourishing foodservice environments, I integrate farm to plate experiences inside all my projects whenever possible. There are a variety of benefits to incorporating these units into a dining experience including creating a design focal point and providing a food forward experience. However, my love for urban agriculture and hydroponics really stems from the ability to create good-for-you organic produce and the ability to provide (in some cases) a learning experience.

Indoor Agriculture is a term used to describe something growing inside a “controlled environment” also known as Controlled Environment Agriculture or “CEA”. There are several methods of growing available including hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponics. In the United States, we mostly see hydroponic and aeroponic growing methods. The main difference between these two forms is that aeroponic plants receive nutrients from a mist that is sprayed onto the roots several times an hour and, unlike hydroponic growing systems, the plants are never placed in water.

But getting back to CEAs, I’m sure everyone has a seen a restaurant that grows at least some of its own herbs for menu ingredients. This is a small-scale version of a CEA and often not an environment designed specifically for CEA. For example, the herb wall pictured below greets every guest that walks into the Illinois locations of LYFE Kitchen.

Now let’s imagine taking the concept one step further … A foodservice facility can grow veggies and greens or even strawberries and tomatoes! Having this ability onsite provides reduction in food costs and food waste; resilience in times of year when fresh ingredients are not readily available; and a variety of crops available for a chef, operator, or ready to sell – 365 days a year! In addition, indoor agriculture generally has increased nutrient levels, can be placed in little used or underutilized real estate in Urban areas (where land is less available for agriculture), and provides a basis for plant-based menu planning.

When you’re planning and programming food facilities of any size from a restaurant to a campus market hall, consider integrating a hydroponic unit. It can be a space in a room, a section of the kitchen, or even a front of house area like the lobby with indoor agriculture. The systems bring an interesting visual to spaces, as well as an edible landscape component.

Indoor agriculture systems can be designed to grow vertically or horizontally, but most general urban areas feature the vertical component because it’s the most efficient use of space. With the use of robotics and Artificial Intelligence, vertical towers can be several stories tall — as long as you can access the plants with scaffolding or stairs for inspection and harvesting. Smaller units, like the one pictured above, can occupy desk space or a small area.

No matter what size indoor agriculture unit you choose, the result is an ability to grow fresh food anytime, anywhere in the world.

From a technical standpoint, one of the best parts about these indoor garden units is the infrastructure. Generally, the requirements are similar considerations to commercial kitchens, including temperature, water filtration methods and electrical needs. You just have to pay special attention to humidity and supply/return air, and the LED lighting, which is specific to the growing conditions. However, technology has made the latter incredibly easy! Operators can care for their crops remotely through cameras, sensors, and lighting controls.

And although cleanliness and hygiene are important when entering and handling a CEA space, any culinary or dining experience is already prepared! Hospitality professionals have already obtained their food handling and HACCP skills already.

Now that you’ve just about passed Urban Agriculture & Hydroponics 101, you’re probably wondering … when can we eat the fruits of our labor (no pun intended)?! Harvesting happens as soon as three to four days for microgreens and three to four weeks for lettuces. Vegetables and strawberries take a bit longer but are definitely worth the wait in my opinion!

Harvesting is easy and local food banks, restaurants, hospitals, schools, and grocery stores are often looking to purchase from local growers. Therefore, depending on the size of your indoor agriculture system, you can grow produce, herbs and spices for your own facility and/or sell retail or wholesale.

I find hydroponic technology to be an innovative way to grow food in urban areas. For those of us in the foodservice and hospitality industry the benefits of a design focal point, better tasting produce and year-round access are incredible. So, the next time you are planning a space and facility, consider integrating CEA. Start small and then watch it grow.

Take a look at the inside of a vertical farm courtesy of AeroFarms and Bowery Farms.


Melanie Corey-Ferrini, FCSI, is a food consultant, architect, and creator of cooperative food system focused projects. She is the founder and CEO of Dynamikspace and 3.14 DC in Seattle, WA. Additionally, Melanie’s passion for combining education and providing tools for people to participate in their food systems shines through her company, Beam Experiences, and her involvement on the FarmTech Society Education Committee. @groweattogether

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