More and more supermarkets are starting mini farms on site. Here’s why locally—and we mean super locally—grown produce is something we're really excited about.

By Dan Nosowitz
December 06, 2019

For most of us who live in cities and suburbs, there's a big gap between where our food comes from and where we actually purchased it. When it comes to produce, this means that our fruits, veggies, and herbs often must travel long distances and endure a lot of handling before we ever see them. All of that can negatively affect their freshness and flavor. But a new trend is starting to shrink that gap to literally nothing by placing the farm right in your supermarket. Short of growing it yourself, it's the freshest possible produce you can get.

Credit: Courtesy of Infarm

Why In-Store Farming Is Beneficial

Similar to the whole farm-to-table movement that took root in the early 2000s and pushed for more locally grown food, in-store farms are about reducing the distance between you and what you eat. That's a win for you because this often means you get higher quality food in terms of flavor and nutrition. But there are several other advantages, too. 

There’s a lot of waste that occurs in transit from farm to table, or more specifically, from farm to market. Transportation requires energy use in the form of fuel for trucks. This trend, for the most part, reduces those fuel costs. “By growing food on-site, merchants provide fresher food and a wider variety of food. Fewer food miles also are good for the environment, since food miles are said to be the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide,” says Jennifer Kaplan, who teaches a food systems course at the Culinary Institute of America branch in St. Helena, California.

Because the food is also still growing on-site, and only harvested as needed, there’s very little spoilage in these systems. “The longer it takes for food to get from the farm to the consumer, the more food waste that occurs,” says Kaplan. The Food and Agriculture Organization, a division of the United Nations, says that roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption goes to waste every year; this program is working to minimize that number. 

Credit: Courtesy of Infarm

How In-Store Farms Work

Many of the growing setups in grocery stores use hydroponics to grow the produce. Instead of using soil, hydroponic systems dip the bare roots of the plant into a constantly moving stream of water that’s been enriched with the nutrients plants need to grow. This method can be extremely efficient, compared to soil-based agriculture, both in terms of space required and the inputs like water that are needed. According to Infarm, a startup that provides growing units and seedlings to grocery stores, each of its in-store farms uses 95% less water and 75% less fertilizer than growing the same amount of plants on a conventional piece of land.

However, because these hydroponic farms are indoors, they usually require artificial light. Some studies have found that energy use for those systems is much higher than for outdoor, soil-based agriculture, but thanks to LED technology, their energy usage is improving.

What They Can Grow

Theoretically, you can grow almost anything in a hydroponic system, but certain crops are better suited to them, especially in small spaces. Infarm focuses on herbs, leafy greens, lettuces, and microgreens because they grow quickly and don't need much space compared to something like tomatoes. They also tend to sell for a higher price per pound than other produce. Another common crop for in-store farms is mushrooms, which don't require light sources to grow. Because they don't last long after harvest, all of these items are challenging to ship to faraway places but in-store farms offer an elegant solution to this problem.

We're all for anything that gives us fresher, more flavorful food! But for now, only a few chains have begun piloting in-store farms, namely Kroger and Whole Foods in the Pacific Northwest and New York, respectively. And you may come across them at a few independent groceries, too. Given all the advantages—both to the stores and to us, the shoppers and eaters—it's only a matter of time before this innovative trend is everywhere.


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