A Fleet of Networked Mushroom Farms is Spreading Across New York

Published Thursday, February 7, 2019

The sleek metal and plexiglass case holds blue, pink, and yellow oyster mushrooms. Their alien forms are striking enough, but bathing them in psychedelic hues to mimic lunar cycles and pumping in mist to keep them comfortably moist gives you your warehouse rave vibe. Slide open the door, close your eyes, and the rich scents of decay and growth mingle, transporting your mind to a childhood summer’s day in the woods, flipping over logs and churning last year’s leaf litter.

Smallhold, a Brooklyn-based company that builds high-tech, climate-controlled “Minifarms” that grow mushrooms, has been rolling out its wares in the New York area in restaurants and more recently, Whole Foods. The fungus-filled devices hardly look like farms in the traditional sense, but that’s kind of the point. A sliver of the growing urban agriculture movement, the Minifarms aim to cut the distance from farm to table, reduce food waste, and use tiny sensors to perfect growing mushrooms.

The sway of mushrooms over humans is strong. Perhaps that’s because they’re like us in some regards (they exhale carbon dioxide, for instance) and completely alien in others (they help the soil take carbon up). They come in weird shapes and sizes. They can sustain us, kill us, and transport our brains to another world. It’s no wonder there’s a mushroom festival in Telluride each year and people thinking about how to use them for everything from treating depression to building houses.

Smallhold aims to transform how mushrooms are grown. The Minifarms come in single stories, like the one that snakes through Mission Chinese restaurant in Manhattan, or they can be stacked like a recently-installed unit I visited in a Whole Foods. To stock the shelves of the Minifarms, the company builds its own bricks of sawdust and “inoculates” them with mycelium, which are essentially the tree mushrooms grow from. Those bricks then get delivered to the Minifarms where the mycelium puts out its mushroom fruit for harvest. Under the right conditions, it takes just seven days to sprout mushrooms from the mycelium-laced sawdust bricks. Smallhold will also take back the sawdust bricks once the mushrooms have been harvested and turn them over to a local compost operation.

In addition to mushrooms, the Minifarms harvest data. The sensors inside each one measure temperature, carbon dioxide, and humidity. Some units even have cameras that snap photos every few minutes. All that information—some 30 million data points total—is routed to a central nervous system and used by the company to create what DeMartino called “recipes” of temperature, humidity, light, and more that can be used to max out mushroom growth. Once the company hits on a winning recipe, it can replicate it at any of its Minifarms.

“So if you take a block of yellow [oyster mushrooms] and then you multiply that by however many is on a shelf, what we can do is within reason right now reliably predict how much you’re going to get off of a shelf off of a unit in a spot somewhere in New York City,” Adam DeMartino, one of Smallhold’s founders, told Earther.

That targeted data allows anyone with a Minifarm to harvest their mushrooms at peak growth and wring the most profit per square inch out of the system (which is important because complex units can run thousands of dollars). The Whole Foods version is capable of churning out 40-80 lbs. of mushrooms each week. Optimizing growth also allows the farms to use less water and energy and cuts down on food waste by helping growers pluck their mushrooms at just the right time.

“We’re still using transportation, but it’s a different type of transportation,” Andrew Carter, the other Smallhold co-founder told Earther, referring to having to deliver the inoculated sawdust blocks. “We don’t have to refrigerate it, we don’t have to have the same sort of climate control, we don’t have to pack it in the same way that that you would if you harvested a product, and you have a considerably less food waste in the distribution process.”

While there are other so-called distributed farms in the city that offer similar targeted yields—Nevin Cohen, a urban agriculture expert at the City University of New York, pointed to Square Roots, a distributed farm that grows greens in shipping containers—none are in the mushroom realm. Plopping the trippy, Alice-in-Wonderland-esque Minifarms in the middle of Whole Foods and high traffic restaurants is undeniably a part of Smallhold’s appeal.

Even when DeMartino pulls the mushrooms out into the ho-hum grocery store light, the magic stays with you. The bouquet of blue oyster mushrooms sprouting from a brick of sawdust and mycelium ripples outward, soft lines and folds looking like they could be shooed away with a few waves like an errant puff of smoke. Yet the mushrooms are surprisingly resilient as DeMartino and Carter harvest them off the block. They’re also damn good, as I learned after scattering them on top of a pizza with smoked mozzarella and lemon.

Minifarms aren’t a silver bullet to feed everyone or untangle our mess of a food system. But they are a proof-of-concept that can help connect city dwellers with the food they eat and reduce food waste. And the U.S. needs all the help it can get in that regard.

Grocery stores and consumers toss out an estimated 60 million tons of food each year, according to the Guardian. The average American household itself pitches out $1,600 worth of food annually. That’s calories, money, and packaging being tossed in the trash, plus wasted carbon emissions transporting that food nobody eats. Urban farming offers one avenue to cut down on all that waste, and New York in particular has embraced the movement, with farms popping up on vacant lots and rooftops, in unused public housing spaces, and even shipping containers.

“New York is one of the cities in the world that has really advanced urban agriculture and nonprofit farming,” said Cohen of the City University of New York. He cited the city’s entrepreneurial spirit and foodie movement, as well as permissive zoning rules and “a lot of well built, sturdy roofs” as reasons the movement has taken off.

At the same time, it’s fair to wonder if cities will ever be able to grow enough food or if distributed farming can be expanded beyond shrooms and leafy greens. There’s also evidence that eating local isn’t always the best option in terms of economies of scale and that improving transportation logistics could cut down on waste and greenhouse gas emissions. 

“There’s always going to be a role for conventional agriculture regionally and beyond,” Cohen said. “But the future of urban agriculture, in the global north at least, will be woven into fabric of cities.”

Carter said he sees Smallhold not as the planet’s savior but as “a tool in the toolbox of fixing food in America.” It doesn’t hurt that it looks cool as hell.

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