Hidden between factories and warehouses in the midst of the quickly gentrifying neighborhood bordering East Williamsburg and Bushwick, a “greenscape” is taking root.
Edenworks, a stacked farming system residing in a rooftop greenhouse on one of the many industrial buildings scattered throughout the neighborhood, stands in stark contrast to its surroundings. The stretch of Johnson Avenue where Edenworks’ “Farmlab” is housed is awash with murky tones of browns and grays. Obscured from the concrete and cinderblocks though is a lush and vibrant garden.
The team at Edenworks uses this surprisingly serene space to test and perfect the technology and design of their “Farmstacks” — or their custom aquaponic growing infrastructure — in advance of their impending move to a larger space in Long Island City, Queens.
At first glance, co-founders Matt La Rosa, Ben Silverman and Jason Green don’t seem like your typical farmers. On paper you’d likely expect them to work in the iron works building that the greenhouse sits atop of rather than in the garden itself. But on any given day you’re guaranteed to find them elbow deep in mud, or harvesting a fresh batch of rainbow chard.
“We’re usually bouncing from drafting blueprints to building improvements to the system, or just digging in the dirt,” Silverman says.
La Rosa and Silverman bring a technical and architectural approach to the logistical development and construction of the farming system. Green previously worked in a neuroscience laboratory as a research scientist, building virtual reality environments for patients seeking brain injury rehabilitation. He says that there are strong similarities in the work that he did at the laboratory and what he does in Edenworks’ facility.
“From an engineering perspective, the work I did is actually a great parallel for farming,” Green says while pointing out the intricacies behind the Farmstacks.
“You have this biological system where environmental conditions impact the outputs; like the time to harvest and the yield amount. It’s similar to outside conditions that affected the patients who I worked with.”
In the midst of loud fans, trickling water, hanging wires and rows of produce, the concept seems somewhat complicated. But Green assures that the aquaponic process is straightforward, at least to a degree.
The tilapia-filled fish tanks at the bottom of the system provide the water and nutrients for the layers of produce that grow on the stacks. The water is carried up to the top and is filtered through each stack with bacteria breaking down waste into fertilizer, feeding the plants in the process. The water is then cleaned as it moves through the beds and is pumped back into the fish tanks below.
Sensors monitor the air and water temperature, humidity, pH levels and dissolved oxygen levels before the data is then pushed to a web application that compiles analytics. This lets the team know which conditions create the best produce while also allowing them to optimize growing conditions for each crop.
This detailed technology is what Green, La Rosa and Silverman see as the future for Edenworks, although it wasn’t the original product that they had in mind. The Farmstacks themselves are what the team first envisioned selling.
When Green made the decision to pursue what is now Edenworks, he first constructed a prototype in his 450-square-foot Gramercy Park studio apartment that he shared with his then girlfriend, now wife.
“She loved the idea,” Green explains while laughing. “She just wasn’t thrilled with the execution.”
The first model consisted of a 10-gallon fish tank that sat among a collection of tubes and small plants on dorm room–style shelves, obstructing the only windows in the apartment. It’s a far cry from the 8-foot-wide by 10-foot-tall tiered stacks that currently reside in the 800-square-foot space that Edenworks now occupies on the top of Kendi Iron Works, a family business owned by Green’s in-laws.
After entering a competition with La Rosa at NYU’s School of Engineering back in 2013, Green received his first capital to start the project. That $500, with the assistance of additional seed money, allowed him to build the original design that eventually morphed into what’s currently housed in the Farmlab. The initial plan was to “empower people to grow their own food,” Green starts to explain.
“But what we decided to do instead was to focus on the food infrastructure. Where’s our food coming from? How is it being grown?”
Now, with $900,000 in seed funding and a team of 13 (eight full-time and five part-time staff, as well as a handful of student interns), Green and his team hope to tackle the larger issue he has with farming: an overdependence on transportation.
“We are trying to fix the food supply chain rather than change [consumer] behavior,” Green explains.
As the vision for Edenworks shifted, so did the technology that supports the system. The design of the Farmstacks took years to perfect, and according to Green they are still tweaking the details.
“We can plan all day and all night when it comes to our prototypes,” Green says, “but if we don’t start building we don’t learn whether our plans work or not.”
He continues to explain, “At a point we decided that a plan that is 80 percent complete today is better than a plan that is 100 percent complete tomorrow. We learn about new things that we have to change in the process and that’s what’s allowing us to get to a better version two of our system.”
After hundreds of tweaks to the design, the team settled on a “LEGO, or Ikea-like” model that allows Edenworks to make ever-larger farms from the same building blocks.
“The design that we came up with made it very easy to build large systems,” Green says. “We realized that it made sense as an infrastructure improvement for commercial-scale farming.”
As a purveyor of the produce and seafood that they grow, they hope to bring people closer to their food sources.
“We’ve taken a technical approach using data and analytics to drive agriculture in a totally new way,” Green says while snipping fresh dandelion greens to add to his lunch. “It ended up being a really delicious problem to try and solve.”
Images courtesy of Edenworks.