The State of Food Innovation: Agriculture & Farming in Boston


The State of Food Innovation: Agriculture & Farming in Boston

With every food revolution, expect to see a farm revolution. The reason for this is simple: as consumers demand more from their food – locally sourced, fresher, fewer chemicals, and the like – food innovators are working to shorten the distance between field and fork. Consequently, growers are changing their practices to accommodate this new, more transparent reality.

Here in Boston, “know your farmer” is a common refrain in food and agriculture circles, and the relative geographic closeness between rural farms and population centers has for years made this quite possible. Urban and ex-urban consumers in Massachusetts mingle with producers year-round at summer and winter farmer’s markets – which have increased three-fold in number since 2004. Here in Boston, the number of markets has increased from around 10 just over a decade ago to almost 30 today, and our year-round Boston Public Market brings consumers Massachusetts-grown produce, meats, dairy, beer, and spirits.

It Takes a Region
We’ve made the case in this series that Boston is becoming a national center for food innovation, with numerous food and farm-related consumer packaged goods, technologies, and other products coming to market in the last decade. A significant reason for this is the agricultural bounty available in New England. From Maine blueberries and lobsters to Massachusetts cod and apples to Vermont dairy and produce, food companies headquartered near Boston can utilize regional ingredients while leveraging the close geographical proximity to make coveted claims like “locally sourced.” In fact, efforts are underway across the region to both protect existing farmland, create new growing opportunities, and dramatically increase the amount of food produced – and consumed – here. Food Solutions New England has put forth its New England Food Vision, a bold plan to build capacity across the region for regional farmers and fishers to catch or produce half of the food New England residents consume by 2060. A vision like this requires innovation not only at the retail and production levels – including the willingness to grow food literally anywhere – but radical changes in distribution infrastructure as well.

Greenhouse Farms
The Northeast traditionally has not been able to support large-scale farms, partly because we have less available acreage than the Midwest and West and partly because of our cooler climate. Fresh Box Farms, in Millis, Mass., is working to change that perception, though its brand of industrial farming bears little resemblance to the iconic images of row crops in America’s Bread Basket. Fresh Box is an indoor hydroponic farm, which means plant roots sit directly in water and receive light artificially – thus using 99 percent less water than field farming. Farming indoors allows Fresh Box to grow its pesticide-free greens year-round, without fear of inclement weather or pests. And growing closer to population centers like Boston allows Fresh Box to deliver its greens to retail stores within 24 hours of harvest – sometimes the same day.

Fresh Box isn’t stopping in Millis. Company heads have their sights set on opening 25 new farms across the U.S., each of which could produce up to three tons of produce daily. Indoor farming operations like Fresh Box, New Jersey-based Bowery, and San Francisco-based Plenty have seen an influx of investor cash and are projected to grow to a $42 billion industry in the next 10 years. In fact, in a decade, up to half the leafy greens Americans consume will have been grown in greenhouses like the Fresh Box’s Millis warehouse.

Urban Farms
To feed the increasing and increasingly urban population in and around Boston, it won’t be enough to simply import food from elsewhere.

Farming itself can be a profitable venture, and Boston’s Urban Farming Institute is training up the next generation of “green-collar workers” seeking to make money in food. The UFI works across the Commonwealth to identify and restore land that could become a farm, training residents to become successful small-plot urban farmers, consulting with cities on policy changes to accommodate urban agriculture.

City Growers has been transforming Boston’s empty lots into farms, farms into food, and food into cash. Founded in 2009 by Glynn Lloyd, who co-founded City Fresh Foods in 1994, the nonprofit City Growers sells its Boston-grown produce to restaurants like Bella Luna, Tremont 647, and Henrietta’s Table.

Similarly, The Food Project is a nonprofit connecting urban youth with local food production on farms in Boston and outside the city. Several Food Project alums have taken the lessons learned during their summers growing food in the city to commercial farms elsewhere or into their work starting food businesses.

These traditional urban farms are breathing new life into working-class neighborhoods and restoring sometimes toxic and blighted city lands. But given the rate at which Boston developers are building on available land, the future of urban agriculture probably involves growing food in the unlikeliest places – from rooftops to greenhouses to shipping containers.

Rooftop Farms
Certified B-Corp Green City Growers has built quite a successful business assisting companies and building owners in turning empty rooftops and terraces into prime growing space. Often working with Somerville-based Recover Green Roofs on installation, Green City Growers has designed rooftop farms and gardens for businesses, colleges, and restaurants across Greater Boston, resulting in more than 175,000 pounds of organic produce. This includes the 5,000-square-foot Fenway Farms, an organic, rooftop growing space along the third-baseline at the iconic ballpark, where veggies like kale and peppers are grown and served in concession stands and restaurants around the park. Green City Growers also installed and maintains the 17,000-square-foot farm on the roof of Whole Foods Market in Lynnfield – the grocery chain’s only such farm.

High atop the roof of the Boston Design Center, the 55,000-square-foot Higher Ground Farm is one of the city’s largest rooftop growing operations. From the Design Center, workers take fresh herbs, flowers, and produce to restaurants and markets around the city – by bike. Higher Ground also manages a rooftop farm at Boston Medical Center, which claims the distinction of having the most plantable rooftop space in the city.

An Explosion of Ag-tech
Urban farms in Boston – whether on a rooftop or in an empty lot – are still largely bound by three seasons of difficult and cold growing weather. To address this conundrum, Boston-based Freight Farms invented its Leafy Green Machine – a 40-foot stainless steel shipping container stacked floor to ceiling with hydroponic vertical growing towers and LED lighting. Freight Farms markets its flagship product as able to produce leafy greens and herbs at a commercial scale. But does it work?

To answer that question, one need only look a few miles away from Freight Farms’ headquarters. In an empty parking lot in East Boston, Shawn and Connie Cooney of Corner Stalk Farm tend to four shipping containers full of hydroponic lettuce, swiss chard, kale, basil, arugula, mint, and mustard greens. The Cooneys, who are both in their 60s, harvest between 4,000 and 6,000 plants a week – roughly 80 times the amount they’d harvest on a conventional farm – while using less than 10 gallons of water per container. Corner Stalk Farm moved into a space at Boston Public Market in 2015, and in a CNN Money story that year, Shawn Cooney reported grossing more than $15,000 a month from Corner Stalk Farm.

Freight Farms is emblematic of a larger trend in which Boston has become a leader: the introduction of new technologies that are harnessing the region’s collective brain power to disrupt traditional agriculture. Consider CiBO, a Cambridge company, which launched with $30 million in funding with its analytics software for farmers growing staple crops like corn and soy. SproutsIO created a micro-garden that lets city-dwellers grow food indoors year-round. Other technologies developed here assist in food processing, track harvests and estimate crop yields, and improve the water efficiency of cotton plants.

A Hub of Food & Farm Investment
Where there is a multitude of technologies disrupting agriculture, you’ll also find a multitude of investors seeking to fund them. That’s certainly true in Greater Boston, where we’ve seen exponential growth in funding for ag-related businesses by local firms. Launched this year by Branchfood founder Lauren Abda and esteemed Boston venture capitalist Marcia Hooper, Branch Venture Group is an angel network for investment in early-stage food products, food tech, and ag-tech startups in the Boston area. The group was formed after its founders noticed a gap in early-stage funding for small food businesses, the number of which is ever increasing in Greater Boston.

Branch joins a community of investors that are fueling Boston’s food and farm future. Hancock Agricultural Investments manages $2.9 billion in agricultural farmland assets for its institutional investors. Startups like Incredible Foods and Inari Agriculture have seen big investments from Cambridge-based venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering, which also helped Charlestown biotech company Indigo raise an incredible $156 million in 2016. And local venture firm Fresh Source Capital invest heavily in companies that are rebuilding sustainable agriculture systems, including food rescue technology Spoiler Alert, indoor farming software platform Agrilyst, and meal delivery service Just Add Cooking. And the list goes on.

The Future
One imagines an agricultural future in which food companies and entrepreneurs continue to draw on the rich bounty of New England’s farms, orchards, and fisheries – as well as its rich financial resources. One also sees the addition of more clean, green indoor hydroponic grow facilities capable of producing fresh food year-round – both large-scale greenhouses in the Boston suburbs and smaller facilities in the urban core. Also expect to see food being grown in smaller, more unusual places within the city as commercial landlords incorporate farms and gardens into office space, real estate developers entice tenants and residents with both indoor and outdoor gardens, and cities continue combating the effects of climate change with green roofs and walls. Greater Boston will continue to harness its intellectual assets to create products and technologies that will transform the way we farm and eat in a rapidly changing world, many times buoyed financially by local investors.

This future, which many thought of as “space-age” just a few years ago, is quickly becoming our reality – a reality that is benefitting visionary entrepreneurs, farmworkers, and eaters in a rapidly urbanizing world.