Will Grocery Aisle Gardens Be the New Farmers Market?

Hydroponic start-ups are drastically shortening the supply chain for certain crops.
Kräuter Garten by INFARM inside a Metro supermarket in Berlin. (Photo: Merav Maroody)
Apr 19, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

You’re out shopping and need to pick up salad fixings. Wandering through the produce aisle, you step inside a modular box, glowing like a benevolent monolith, and harvest your own hydroponically grown lettuces and herbs. LED lights stand in for the sun, and microsensors monitor the growing conditions and climate of the farm in a box.

This may sound like shopping sci-fi, but for consumers in Berlin, grocery gardens are reality, thanks to the start-up INFARM. And considered the growing market for local food and the pressing need to increase production, this kind of vastly shortened supply chain could become a trend.

To feed an estimated 9.6 million people by 2050, we’ll need to grow 70 percent more food, and everyone from NGOs to entrepreneurs are working to figure out how to meet the challenge. Advocates of hydroponics say plants can grow twice as fast as conventional produce, using 95 percent less water, zero pesticides and herbicides, and a fraction of the space. That’s more or less why shoppers searching out mizuna in Berlin found a garden growing out of a produce aisle end cap at the supermarket Metro earlier this month.

Those are the stats driving people like Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, to declare, “The 2020s will be the decade of the vertical farming revolution.”

The search engine, in turn, sparked INFARM to reimagine the produce aisle. “One night I googled: ‘Can I farm without soil?’,” INFARM’s founder and CEO Erez Galonska said in a statement. “And the answer I got was: ‘hydroponics.’ ” His living-room experiment yielded a “jungle farm full of delicious greens” in a month, despite it being the dead of winter. Now INFARM builds indoor vertical gardens for hotels, retailers, and restaurants. If successful, the company intends to begin mass manufacturing units for supermarket outlets before the end of the year.

(Photo: Merav Maroody)

Similar-spirited efforts can be found stateside, such as the pioneering partnership between Whole Foods and Gotham Greens to operate the nation’s first commercial-scale greenhouse farm within a retail grocery space. The 20,000-square-foot greenhouse on the roof of the Brooklyn grocery store grows pesticide-free greens for Whole Foods Market locations throughout New York City.

Other applications of this hyper-local approach to where your food comes from could work—and find the same kind of popularity in the U.S. as INFARM and others are generating in Europe, according to Ion Vasi, associate professor of sociology at the University of Iowa. Vasi studies why consumers are drawn to local food and farmers markets—the rise of which is at least partly because of our drive toward connection to our food and the people who produce it.

“We’ve seen a major increase in interest in local food in the U.S. and around the world,” Vasi said. “Many companies are trying to take advantage of this trend; for example, Walmart has a goal of 9 percent of its U.S. fruits and vegetables to be locally sourced. It is likely that vertical hydroponic gardens will be adopted by U.S. companies that want to sell local food, particularly if Metro and other European retailers start using them on a large scale.”

“The community aspect is very strong for many people,” Vasi told TakePart of his research. “We looked at theories that would explain the relationships people have in the markets. We had a gut feeling that this may have something to do with people wanting to connect to each other. It’s something that indicates there is something we kind of lost and are nostalgic and yearn for as a society.”

On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, we’ve seen technology foster connections that fans argue are no less genuine for existing online. Can high-technology gardens offer the same sense of connection old-fashioned farmers markets do IRL?

Something similar has worked elsewhere in Europe, where an unmanned vegetable vending machine in Paris, Au Bout Du Champ (“At the end of the field”), puts farm-fresh eggs and seasonal produce, like leafy bunches of carrots and bright strawberries, inside coin-operated metal cubbies. One early critic—the founder’s mother—bemoaned the loss of interaction that comes from buying directly from a farmer, until cameras caught a different sort of connection surprisingly springing up around the food.

“Because there was no specific relationship between us—the seller and the buyer—a bond was born between the consumers,” the automat-for-vegetable’s creator, Julien, told Munchies. “The people entering the shop speak with one another about cooking, how the system works, and sometimes team up and divide the contents of each locker depending on what they want. It’s like a community.”