The company Grove Labs thinks it’s found a way to provide customers with fresh, organic, and extremely local produce: all they’ll need is an indoor, fish-fertilized, hydroponic garden.
Gabe Blanchet and Jamie Byron stumbled on the idea for Grove a year and a half ago, when they were roommates at MIT and Byron was tinkering with indoor gardens. "Jaimie came into our room with a bunch of PVC pipes and crates, and I was totally against it," Blanchet says. But as they ate salad from their hacked-together garden in the middle of the Boston winter, Blanchet came around. "We thought that if we could use technology to make it easier, and design to make it beautiful, we could make something that would allow anyone to grow their own food."
The company now has 13 employees and a little over $2 million in funding, mostly from venture capitalists and angel investors like Timothy Ferriss, the "four-hour" everything guru. Today, Grove is announcing an "early adopter program," with units going out to a couple hundred people in the Boston area.
"We took the philosophy and biology of an actual ecosystem and shrunk it down"
The Grove system looks like a 6-foot-tall wood cabinet with four LED-lit boxes for plants. Three are smaller, for leafy greens and herbs, and one is larger, for things like tomatoes or peas. On the bottom left is an aquarium whose fish provide fertilizer for the plants. The fish are what make the system "aquaponic," a particularly organic variant on traditional hydroponics.
"Essentially we took the philosophy and biology of an actual ecosystem and shrunk it down and put it in a bookshelf tower," Blanchet says. The fish produce ammonia in their waste, which gets pumped to the plants, where bacteria convert the ammonia to nitrate. The plants consume the nitrate, filtering the water, which gets returned to the fish. "If you keep the system running optimally you can grow plants faster than you can outside," says Blanchet.
That’s an important "if." Aquaponics can be difficult, combining the challenges of keeping both plants and fish alive, and then putting them in a system that needs to be kept balanced. Blanchet says Grove’s sensors and software will help help novices, with data sent to a smartphone app that will tell you when it’s time to feed the fish, change the water, or make other adjustments. The app also lets you control the lights, fans, and pumps remotely.
Energy is the other classic obstacle to hydroponic farming. Growing vegetables on remote farms and shipping them to supermarkets may be wasteful and emit lots of carbon dioxide, but it has the benefit of free energy from the sun. Various utopian planners have dreamt of feeding the world using vertical urban hydroponic farms, but the technology has never really made sense for anyone but marijuana growers, who don’t want to plant outdoors for obvious reasons. Recently, however, hydroponics has been undergoing a bit of a resurgence, thanks in part to improvements developed by pot growers.
"We owe a lot of the knowledge base to the marijuana growing industry," Blanchet says. "We’ve taken that knowledge and put it into something that makes sense for growing fruits and vegetables."
Several companies are making commercial hydroponic farming work in places where soil is scarce and there demand for organic, local produce is high. In 2011 Gotham Greens built a rooftop hydroponic farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and has since expanded to several locations in the city, including the roof of the Whole Foods in Gowanus. Last month it announced plans for a 75,000 square foot rooftop farm in Chicago. BrightFarms, also based in New York, has been having similar success, partnering with grocery stores to sell produce grown nearby. But these are mostly big greenhouses atop roofs. They benefit from economies of scale and free solar energy.
"We owe a lot of the knowledge base to the marijuana growing industry"
Blanchet says that thanks to improvements in LED technology, their system uses about of 200 kilowatt-hours per month, depending on what you grow. That comes out to around $10 a month in electricity for a garden that he says can keep someone supplied with a salad’s worth of leafy greens every few days. (Not that this is about saving money: the recommended two-tower system will run about $2,400.) Grove says that when you take shipping into account, growing your own vegetables in their system has a smaller carbon footprint, though they won’t be releasing official data until later this year, after they’ve been able to observe the efficiency of the early adopter units.
"As a company we support any kind of personal farming," Blanchet says. "So if someone lives in Southern California and has room outside, they have no reason to buy a Grove — they should be harnessing that natural resource." Grove, he says, is for people like him who live in Boston, where the growing season is about four months and few people have space for a garden.
If they can make it easy to use, a big part of Grove’s appeal will likely be aesthetic. The unit comes in cherry, birch, mahogany, and bamboo — Blanchet recommends bamboo, because it’s the most sustainably harvested — and is lit with full-spectrum LEDs. The lights can be timed to brighten and shift spectrum throughout the day, starting red-hued in the morning, becoming bright and clear during the day, and then getting cooler and less intense in the evening. The unit is about the size of a refrigerator, and Blanchet imagines it occupying a similar space in the kitchen.
The first units will go out to customers in the Boston area this February. Blanchet says they’re keeping the program local because they want to be able to closely monitor how it’s going. "If need be we want to be able to jump on bike and go see a Grove and address any issues," he says. "We want to really partner with early adopters and have them help us build a great product."