A Third Way of Thinking About Agriculture

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Let’s talk about farming inside urban warehouses, or sleek glass highrises tucked in crowded neighborhoods.

It may sound strange, but that’s the idea behind vertical farming, a new way to grow food in the middle of and during any season of the year.

Northwestern University alumnus Alan Rose, a 1977 Medill advertising graduate, is at the forefront of this movement. Along with his partners Paul Suder, Paul Hardej and Myles Harston, he’s working to grow produce in the Chicago area using closed-loop technologies, including growing plants in air, called aeroponics, and with a simulated ecosystem where fish provide fertilizer through their waterborne waste. 

Rose and his partners are launching Here, a brand of vertically grown produce raised indoors. The partners are also collaborating on Cityponics, a company focused on helping would-be vertical farmers with equipment, locations, and even marketing. They’re hoping to have a vertical farm in a Chicago suburb operating by this fall.

Medill Reports spoke with Rose about his partnership, what this new endeavor means for the future of agriculture, and why growing indoors makes so much sense.

Alan Rose, Myles Harston, and Paul Suder, three of the four Here partners (courtesy of Here)Alan Rose, Myles Harston, and Paul Suder, three of the four Here partners (courtesy of Here)What made you decide to get involved with vertical farming?
My partner Paul Suder had the initial idea to look into urban farming.  He then got his friend and colleague Paul Hardej involved. They did some research and thought this could work, especially with all the empty buildings. They came to me thinking this could be something that’s more for restaurants – really a sustained, continuous, pure source of produce for restaurants. I said, “Absolutely, great idea, but let me think about this.” And the more I learned, the more I realized there could be more of a consumer angle to it. That’s what I brought to the project, realizing there’s more of a consumer market out there. 

There are very few iPads that come along, you know. There are very few Nikes or Starbucks. There are very few businesses that change things and change the way we do things.  While it’s not an iPad, this could be transformative.

Why and how?
You avoid all of the problems of being outside. There are no weather issues. There are no birds flying overhead, pooping on your salad. There are no human waste issues, water table issues, air pollution…on and on. You don’t have to worry about transportation either. It’s good for the environment in so many ways, and you have a pure, controlled product, with a more rapid growing system, at least with the aeroponic product.

There’s been a “locavore” movement for some years. It’s about getting food from the farms that are nearby, or the animals that are nearby.  In the Midwest, and other places like the Midwest, you have a very short growing season really. Now we [have] a year-round growing season. Instead of growing in just one little patch of ground, I can stack things three, four levels up, or more, depending on the height of our ceilings.

What are the advantages of the technology?
Aquaponics is a nice closed-loop system where the fish water provides the perfect nutrients for the plants. The cold-blooded nutrients are healthier than mammalian fertilizer, which the plants absorb and [then] return healthy things for the fish. It’s a very symbiotic system.

With the aeroponics system, things grow much more quickly. That’s the microgreens system. The plants grow in approximately 18-28 days. Arugula, basil, different salad mixes – they grow very quickly. Then, depending on the wind and what fertilizer you’re using, you can actually change the flavor profile.

You tasted our arugula. [It has] such a nice, strong, peppery flavor to it, compared to arugula that you buy in the grocery store that tastes really pretty bland, more like a spinach. It’s just amazing, what you can do to slightly modify the flavors, completely naturally of course – just by adding wind or more water or less water or more of this fertilizer. It’s very easy.

It’s just a different form of farming.  It doesn’t matter really where it [grows]. What matters is "Is it nutritious?" and "How long will it last in your fridge?" That’s all we think the consumer will care about.  The focus is on the end product, not the process.

So the lettuce has always existed, you’re just growing it in a new way?
Agriculture is just an old system…that hasn’t really been challenged. Well, there really is a better way, and that’s what this does. That’s why I’m so excited about it as a marketing and advertising person. Usually you’re launching a line extension, or a flank, or a new way of housing a razor blade. You know, five blades instead of three. Ho-hum, not terribly exciting, really. Well, this is really something different.

It’s a third way. It’s not regular produce and it’s not organic. It’s a new way. It’s kind of like how Steve Jobs positioned the iPad a year ago, when [it] first came out. It’s not a phone. It’s not a computer. It’s a third way. There was all this discussion about "Oh, no one’s going to need it." "What’s the purpose of this?" And they’re predicting what, 40 million units this year? A hundred competitors? Am I comparing this to Apple? Of course not. But, this is a third way. It’s a new way of thinking about it.

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