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Vertical Farms Help Feed Long Island

Cory Mahony, Owner of Urban Fields Agriculture, holding a basil plant.

By Jhonatan Bonilla

Along the south shore of Patchogue, Long Island, in the back roads next to a boat yard, you can find a farm growing fresh basil year round for local businesses. This basil is grown indoors and is a product of the vertical hydroponic farm Urban Fields Agriculture.

The indoor farm focuses on greens and herbs, basil is the key seller with sprouts being grown to order. Inside there are three four-level stacks of basil at different stages of their growth and a smaller separate rack focused on the seedlings of the herb. 

“I was growing arugula for a while, mint, chives, stuff like that. But at the current scale that I’m at they’re just not worth it to grow,” Cory Mahony, owner of Urban Fields Agriculture, said. “So I’m focusing more on the specialty crop, the highly perishable basil, that goes bad really fast. Having a fresh supply in the winter time is invaluable to restaurants.”

The farm’s basil goes to local businesses such as Delfiore Pork Store, Donatina’s pizzeria, and the Great South Bar. What isn’t sold Mahony donates to the recently established non-profit Carroll’s Kitchen LI.

“He’s donated basil to us like every day since day one, 37 days ago,” Ryan Carroll, the founder of Carroll’s Kitchen, said.  “When I get basil here, he picks it and it’s been picked fifteen minutes and then it’s on a plate… It’s the freshest basil possible, you can’t compete with that.”

Above the methodically spaced plants are rows of LED lights to replace the sunlight that the plants would be missing.

“The roots grow down into a solution of water and dissolved nutrient powder that you can tailor and modify for the specific crop you’re growing so it gives it the optimal amount of nutrients and exactly what the plant needs,” Mahony said.“Using this method allows plants to grow about 50% faster.” 

Aside from shortening the harvest period, hydroponics has other benefits that it shares with aeroponics, another non-conventional method of farming.

“In around 1980, aeroponics came to grow because NASA wanted to farm on the moon or Mars,” Dr. Dickson Despommier, an emeritus professor of microbiology and public health at Columbia University, said. He wrote about the development of alternative farming methods in his book,“The Vertical Farm: feeding the world in the 21st Century,” in 2010. “The way you can conserve water maximally and still grow food is to use aeroponics. It uses 70% less water than hydroponics which uses 70% less water than outdoor farming… In many places where there is no water, for instance the Middle East, growing food hydroponically is a good idea.”

This sustainable way to farm was introduced to Stony Brook University in 2015 by the company Freight Farms, who installs small hydroponic farms that are built inside shipping containers. 

“In addition to different types of lettuces, we also grow herbs and radishes, managing their growth through live camera feeds and a smartphone app,” Angela M. Agnello, a director of marketing and communications at Stony Brook University said. “Each semester our student-run farm, with support from the Faculty Student Association and CulinArt, produces approximately 800 heads of bibb and chicory lettuces per week, which we serve to customers.”

Now that the students are no longer in class due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the farm is being operated by staff from FSA and CulinArt, which harvests the produce and supplies it to the dining halls. 

The closing of schools due to the pandemic is affecting this farm, but the closing of borders could also limit visiting farm workers from reaching farms here in the United States as travel restrictions have been implemented to slow the spread of the virus. In 2019, there were 204,801 H2-A, agriculture guest worker, visas issued. Of those, 8,100 came to New York last year. No data has been published by the Department of State and farm employers and associations are reporting mixed results.

Farms who still have a work force, whether vertical or horizontal, still face the danger of infection and must provide equipment and implement safety measures to reduce the spread. 

“Everyone social distances, wears masks, gloves and has their own vehicles,” Larry Perrine Partner and CEO of Channing Daughters vineyards said. The vineyard, which along with not being open for tasting, has also adapted by selling online or over the phone and either shipping or doing pick-up orders. 

Perrine says sales are down due to restaurants being closed.

This has had the same effect on Urban Fields Agriculture. “The average order size went down,” Mahony said, with some customers cutting their orders “roughly by half,” “but there’s been a shortage of fresh produce so I’ve gotten new customers.”

Mahony plans on expanding his three rack farm into seven, and hopes to expand further in the next two years.

The vertical farming market was valued at 2.23 billion dollars in 2018 and is expected to projected to reach 12.77 billion by 2026.

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