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The Globe and Mail

Produce that goes straight from sky to table

Chef John Mooney with his system in New York?s West Village: 'We can grow vertically, just like a city managing people.'

Future Growing, LLC

John Mooney is taking the concept of locavorism to new heights.

At a time when "local" and "sustainable" are the buzzwords of nearly every restaurant and kitchen, urban rooftop gardens have become widespread. But the New York chef is soon opening the first restaurant in the U.S. to grow its own herbs, fruits and vegetables with an up-on-the-roof hydroponic farm.

Six floors above the Bell Book & Candle restaurant in Manhattan's West Village, slated to open within four weeks, Mr. Mooney is growing mint, lettuce, strawberries, squash and about 70 other varieties of herbs, fruit and vegetables in vertical, soil-less towers. A water filtration system, which is set on a timer, bathes the towers for three minutes, every 12 minutes.

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Mr. Mooney expects to grow enough food there to supply 60 to 80 per cent of the produce his restaurant uses for 10 months of the year.

As he explains to The Globe and Mail, it's a method that he believes could change the way the rest of us acquire our food as well.

Why have you taken on this endeavour?

For one, space is at a premium in New York. To farm enough land to produce enough vegetables for our restaurant is literally impossible, but also definitely impossible when it comes to cost-effectiveness.

So the benefit of our hydroponic tower farm is we can grow vertically, just like a city managing people. Our vegetables use air space as opposed to surface area.

But why grow your own produce in the city, when you can buy it from the local farmer's market?

Well, first off, sourcing is everything. This is just a progression or evolution. I like to bridge the source and the table, and now I am the source.

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Can you explain the technology?

It's very efficient. It's all made of PVC. It's food-safe. In the sun, it doesn't leach any carcinogens. It's gravity-fed, meaning the whole farm is irrigated naturally through the process of gravity.

We do use energy, but it's only [on]12 minutes an hour to pump the fluids through the towers. And also the dosing system that provides the nutrients is run by solar panel....

A question commonly asked is 'what about the weight load?' The weight load is one of the benefits of my hydroponic system, because a hydroponic system is significantly lighter than doing a soil rooftop farm - which exists in the city, but in an 105-year-old building [like ours] it's literally impossible and also very difficult to maintain.

How are you able to grow fruits and vegetables more quickly this way than conventional gardening?

We control the air and the water. Hydroponics doesn't have any solid matter. So, I don't know, the plants just have a better response than pulling their own nutrients [from soil] We're providing it constantly for them, so they just expand quicker.

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With a lot of sunlight, they just grow very well.

For lettuce, from seed form to consumption is six weeks, start to finish. That's about half the time it takes to conventionally farm.

How much does it cost to do this, in comparison to buying in produce?

The actual numbers of the scale of my farm now, I don't know. But for instance, the physical energy - mine - is a lot less than a conventional farm is. The quantity I produce is plenty for my restaurant, for most of the ingredients that I'll be using.

I don't have delivery. I don't need refrigeration space for my tomatoes and things like that. I basically pull everything within a day of service.

How does the quality compare?

The quality is amazing. For tomatoes, for example, I pick them when they're absolutely perfect, right off the vine. There's no transportation involved, there's no other treatment to prepare them for transport, and they never see a refrigerator, which makes tomatoes grainy and has an adverse effect on their flavour.

For one, the carbon footprint is a benefit for the environment. But for us, it's right on location. The experience of eating something from the garden that's picked right there and consumed is something that most people are unfamiliar with. Anything bought in a store or even at a farmer's market has been transported.

What do you plan on growing as the weather cools down?

Well, my system is heated. It stays at 68 degrees [18 degrees Celsius] so even if there's frost, it doesn't harm them. They actually flourish in cold weather because of the heated system.

I also have a greenhouse and a conventional farm in Lancaster, Pa., that supplements me. So in case there was a catastrophe… I always have a backup plan. We also bridge the gap through the greenhouse. We also can't grow root vegetables in tubes, so we use that for those things too.

So with a heated hydroponic system, does that mean you can continue to grow strawberries in the middle of winter?

Yes, I can.

You've suggested your rooftop garden could offer a new food production model. Can you explain?

Even as a residential application, one tower can produce loads of food for, say, a couple or a single person or even a family. And as for the space management of it, all you need is sunlight and a small amount of energy - a normal wall plug can feed the pump with very low energy.

So I think in terms of a metropolis, definitely like New York where conventional farming is very difficult and also access to light is difficult, rooftop farming is definitely the wave of the future. Restaurants and hotels all over the place, I think, definitely will catch on.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Greening a rooftop

While Bell Book & Candle's chef, John Mooney, is growing his restaurant's produce vertically, another N.Y. business, under the leadership of head farmer Ben Flanner, is expanding the concept of rooftop farming horizontally.

Covering nearly a full acre of leased rooftop space, Brooklyn Grange, a commercial enterprise that's actually located in the borough of Queens despite its name, is touted as the biggest rooftop soil farm in the city.

Opened this summer, the farm grows hundreds of thousands of plants, including heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, kale, herbs, beets, radishes and beans, which it sells at local farm stands and to New York restaurants. In winter, the company says it plans to plant cover crops like rye, buckwheat, vetch and clover.

"The goal is to improve access to very good food, to connect city people more closely to farms and food production, and to make urban farming a viable enterprise and livelihood," the company says on its website.

The farm, which sits atop a 91-year-old building, has about 545,000 kilograms of soil. Brooklyn Grange says it installed a special green roof system, which includes a barrier that prevents roots from penetrating the roof's surface and drainage mats designed to handle excess water from heavy storms.

Such farms aren't likely to replace rural farms as the city's main food source, the website says. "But having farms inside the city limits by taking advantage of unused roof space is an opportunity not to be missed."

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