Operating out of a facility constructed entirely of shipping containers, Smallhold manufactures miniature vertical farm units, which produce 40 times the output per square foot of a traditional farm, using 96% less water. Like a traditional nursery, the company grows crops through the beginning stages (frequently using bio-waste like coffee grounds from Meyers Bageri), leaving the easy business of picking and serving to customers like Bun-Ker in Bushwick—which utilizes two Smallhold mini-farms to harvest a variety of mushrooms!
How did you become involved in your line of work?
Andrew: It’s a pretty niche field of work, but I’ve been doing urban agriculture projects for years now. Most of my background is in commercial greenhouse and vertical farm systems, focusing on hydroponic leafy green and tomato production. This has landed me into a whole slew of agriculture startups in New York City over the past eight years. If someone is growing food hydroponically in this city, I probably know them. All this experience has made me realize: local food is too expensive, and 500 miles away is not local. This led me to collaborate with Adam to change urban agriculture, one mushroom at a time.
Adam: I’m a futurist, but also a realist. We’re headed directly toward a food and water crisis, and I wanted to do something meaningful to change that. I’d been working to create and promote technology and media startups for over a decade, and wanted to put my experience to use solving real-world problems. After a six month motorcycle trip/soul-searching trip around the country, I came back and began working with Andrew—my best friend and co-conspirator on many projects of over 14 years—to build out the shipping container growing chamber down at North Brooklyn Farms. Starting Smallhold was the natural evolution of our relationship and just felt right.
Tell us a little bit about your present work, the Cliffs Notes version of your day to day and what is at stake.
Smallhold represents the culmination of decades technology in urban agriculture. We want to provide the highest quality, most local produce possible at an accessible price point – which is why we started by making the only mushroom farm in NYC. But in order to take our vision and make it scalable—to build a universally sustainable food economy around local produce—we have to completely obliterate our notions of what it means to “farm” and start working within the infrastructure that we live in. So we’re putting minifarms everywhere and running them remotely.
On a day-to-day basis, we maintain remote farming operations around New York City in our Distributed Farming Network, growing exotic mushrooms to help us expand the business, and building more units to meet increased demand for hyperlocal food. A typical day involves checking in at the farm, making deliveries, and maintaining relationships with our restaurant partners, fabricating minifarms and conducting trials in our DIY lab in Bushwick. We’re lucky enough to be surrounded by some of the best chefs and artists in the world, so we also spend time giving away as much produce as we can to them to see what kinds of dishes they can come up with, informing our own product development.
What do you find most fulling about your work?
There are two answers to this question:
First, seeing the insanely beautiful/tasty dishes that our restaurant partners create: We’ve had Tessa Liebman (a Brooklyn artist/chef) desiccate our king oyster mycelium and turn it into a rim for drinks, and Gunnar Gislason of Agern serve them in an elegant dish with freshly ground coffee and venison. And second, knowing that we’re creating a solution to the most pressing problems the world is facing today: Global food and water shortages and excessive carbon emissions.
What is your proudest achievement with this work and what is your greatest challenge?
Honestly, of everything we’ve accomplished so far, it’s still the initial project that makes us proudest. When we open up the doors of the shipping container farm down on the river, pick a fresh mushroom, and hand it to someone, there’s a light that goes on every single time. You can see the connection you’re making between them, the food, and their environment.
Our biggest challenge will be the public perception that food can’t be grown in cities or that it’s still something that will happen in the future—not right now. People don’t realize that just like the self-driving car, networked farming is here, now—not in giant skyscraper gardens, but in their backyards and basements.
What do you hope changes or improves (or continues!) in your field in the future?
We hope that peoples’s notions of what local food is and does improve. Local food isn’t something that is just “nice to have” anymore. It’s a necessity not only from an environmental perspective, but also from a spiritual and existential perspective. The closer food is to someone who consumes it, the more they know it, and the more they know themselves.
Who would you nominate for this list?
We’d hands-down nominate Raphael Lyon and Arley Marks. They’re pushing the edge of Brooklyn culture incredibly with Honey’s Bar/Enlightenment Wines by creating some of the most innovative drinks with their house mead in one of the most original environments to drink them in.
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.