"Did you ever taste wasabi arugula?" Rob asked me.
"Taste?" I thought to myself. "I've never even heard of the plant.
That was, until I met Rob Laing, who is the founder of Farm One, a relatively new hydroponic farm in NYC specializing in fresh, local, and unique herbs, like Diplotaxis erucoides, otherwise known as wasabi arugula—a rather unassuming green plant, which easily clears your sinuses on first bite.
That's not the only interesting herb that Rob is producing on his hydroponic farm, so I asked him to take some time to chat with Homestead Brooklyn about hydroponics, herb choice, and year-round local produce in the city.
Summer Rayne Oakes: What was the inspiration behind starting Farm.One?
Rob Laing: After my previous startup in Japan, I knew I wanted to do something with food; something I actually cared about and got excited about every day. I was lucky enough to have some serious downtime to take culinary courses and discover what it means to work with flavors and ingredients from around the world, especially in Thailand and California.
I was excited to discover so many new, exciting, flavorful and strange-looking ingredients in farmers markets that I had never even seen before. At the same time I was sad that these amazing things were only available for a few weeks a year in very particular locations. So I wondered if I could bring those ingredients, year-round, to the city.
I was also fascinated by a few news items I’d seen, about Japanese companies starting to grow lettuce under LED lights in repurposed semiconductor factories. I thought, “Maybe I could do that in New York?” and “What’s the worst that could happen?”
SRO: I've heard that phrase before!
RL: Well, yeah. Put it another way, I had no idea what I was doing. So I researched for several months, found some like-minded people in NYC including an experienced farm manager, and searched for a place for a prototype farm. I was lucky enough to find ICE in Manhattan, and so we installed a bunch of equipment and started growing things. It was a big experiment.
SRO: I've been to the farm and it's small but formidable! You've done a lot with a little bit of space.
RL: I’m really glad we started with a small “prototype” farm, because I’m a dumbass and we’ve made multiple mistakes every single day.
SRO: What kind of mistakes?
RL: Well, early on I had grand visions of filling a huge space with brand new equipment. I still meet people interested in this industry all the time, who tell me their big plans about doing the same thing. Good luck to them. Instead with a small space we’ve learned so much about our customers, the plants, ways of working, without making expensive errors. We’ve built simple software to manage the farm that fits exactly with how we work. Our plant IQ has rapidly increased.
For example, I learned very quickly that you can’t be precious about plants. If something is maturing and no one has bought it, you have to say goodbye otherwise you’ll have no space left for other crops. Even if something is growing well, it’s far better to cut it back than wait for “the perfect moment”. You have to learn to be ruthless otherwise you will be quickly overwhelmed. Commercial growers and experienced home gardeners come to know this instinctively.
Labor is by far the biggest cost to running a farm like ours, and there is no rule book to how to farm in a small urban space growing dozens of varieties year-round. So we have to invent things from scratch. Simple things like how to plan out a harvest, how to move around the space, how to talk to each other to avoid errors, what containers to use when packing our produce. I’m not kidding when I say that we weren’t even folding cardboard boxes properly before.
Every improvement you make in terms of efficiency makes a difference. Now we’re expanding to a bigger farm, we’re excited and glad that we could make hundreds of small mistakes in a cheaper and more forgiving space first. But hey, I’m sure we’re about to make a bunch more.
SRO: I'm sure it'll be great and I can't wait to see the new digs. Before we get further, maybe tell my readers a little more of what you offer at Farm One.
RL: We grow high-end herbs, edible flowers and microgreens for the best chefs in New York. We focus on rarity and flavor, use no pesticides or other chemicals, and everything we grow is perfectly clean enough to eat as-is. We harvest and deliver on the same day, using bikes and the subway—so if you order by 10AM we can have it in your restaurant by 5PM. Our produce is packed in reusable containers, which we pick up from our customers the next time we deliver. A typical order might be for a pound of red shiso, or 50 violas, or a tray of micro bronze fennel, which a Michelin-starred chef will use to garnish their dishes.
So far we’ve been operating in a small farm inside the Institute of Culinary Education in downtown Manhattan, which is the first culinary school in the world that has its own indoor farm. Now we’re building an additional, 10X larger, custom-built space in TriBeCa which will be up and running soon. This will give us enough capacity to sell to the general public, and expand the events and other special farm experiences we can offer. It’s a weird, fragrant, green little oasis in the frozen concrete jungle.
SRO: Share a little more on what you do what you do, particularly here in NYC.
RL: Cities are dense, artificial environments that are hugely demanding on the planet because millions of us expect to get amazing fresh food, of all colors and flavors and origins, whatever the season, every day.
Farm.One is a constructive response to that situation. We’re growing special ingredients in the heart of the city, in a way that saves water, reduces food miles and radically reduces packaging waste. Everything we do is very visible and open—the exact opposite of much of the modern industrial food system.
Okay, yes, Farm.One is kind of sustainability-porn. But guess what? It’s not an architect’s drawing. It’s actually happening right now in this city. Growing indoors in under-used spaces (our next farm is in a basement that used to be a Pilates gym) means the city really can have hundreds of little farms. And over the next ten years the cost of the LED lights we use will go down by a factor of five, making this kind of urban farm accessible to almost anyone with a bodega and a basement.
At the same time as being sustainable, we’re expanding the range of produce that chefs and home cooks can use, by making it far more accessible. Even “local” farms in New York can be hours away, meaning that chefs can’t pop in and out on a working day, only the most dedicated home cooks would ever go and visit, and they have to use trucks and distributors. In contrast, we’re right in the heart of Manhattan. That’s exciting to me because it changes our relationship with our food. It makes it possible for me to give a chef their first taste of Papalo, or see a kid’s eyes squint as they taste a truly sour, natural herb for the first time.
On a personal level, it’s an incredible privilege to work somewhere where we can all grab a handful of fresh purple basil at lunchtime to throw on a simple pizza, or to entertain friends at home with simple baked stuffed dates sprinkled with bright yellow wood sorrel flowers. Farm.One is a small way of making that convenience of “your own kitchen garden” possible for chefs and food enthusiasts in the city who don’t have the space, talent or patience to grow these kinds of things themselves.
SRO: I love your vision of farms in a bodega's basement. Haha. Is that what particularly attracted you to hydroponics?
RL: Hydroponics is exciting, because it allows you to grow in a very “clean” and controlled way indoors. It’s also often more efficient than growing in soil. Soilless growing has the additional advantage that it’s far easier to control pests without using any chemicals, which in a commercial farm is a huge, huge benefit. Part of what we’re doing is about total consistency; we should be able to deliver the same quality product whatever day of the week, whatever time of year. It’s easier to do that with hydroponics.
On the flip-side, hydroponics is linked in some people’s minds with poor-quality supermarket produce—huge, tasteless tomatoes and cucumbers. This is actually not about hydroponics, it’s about the varieties and growing methods used. When you come and taste and smell our beautiful plants, any negative thought immediately flies out the window, but it’s still a mindset we have to counter sometimes.
Also when they hear “Hydroponics”, people always ask us “Where do you grow the weed?”. It was funny at first.
SRO: Please. If I had a dime for every weed joke! When I converted my closet to a garden, everyone asked about my weed stash. Let's get back to the hydroponics though. What kind are you employing at Farm One?
RL: We use a weirdly large number of different systems, mainly because at ICE part of the job of the farm is to show students and visitors a variety of interesting ways to grow things.
The first is NFT, which stands for “Nutrient Film Technique”. It's a system where you have a reservoir from which water is pumped up and then trickled down an array of channels. The plants sit in holes in the channels. The plumbing gets kind of complicated, to say the least. I actually hate NFT.
Then there is DWC or “Deep Water Culture” which consists of big trays full of bubbling water. The plants sit in holes in floating “rafts” on the water. This is our favorite system because it’s simple and doesn’t cause a lot of stress on the plants if for whatever reason the power goes off.
Then there is Flood/Drain. In this system water is pumped up into trays and then drained down, several times per day. It’s simple and works well but you have to get the water height quite precisely correct.
Then there is the Tower Garden. This is a 6’ tall circular tower which pumps water up and then drips it down the roots of plants which stick out the sides. It’s very accessible and fun and you can use them outdoors too.
Lastly, there is fogponics. We’re now experimenting with a few systems that aerosolize water into droplets and then ‘fog’ that mixture around the roots of plants. It can stimulate very fast growth but it’s not very easy to manage and maintain.
SRO: Fascinating how many systems you use. But I know you're also experimenting with a lot of plant varieties. What would you say are some of your more popular varieties that you grow?
RL: A year ago when I was planning the farm, I didn’t really know anything about edible flowers. But we’ve been blown away by the popularity of our edible flowers like borage (Borago officinalis), violas (Viola sp.), wood sorrel (Oxalis sp.) flowers and anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) flowers. The great thing about these varieties is that most of them actually have real flavor, which means they are a functional garnish rather than something that looks pretty and tastes like nothing.
Chefs have also loved using our Nepitella (Calamintha nepeta), which has aromatic leaves that are like oregano and mint, and tiny, pretty pink flowers. It’s a product that’s very hard to get hold of outside of Farm.One, and most great chefs we meet have never even seen it in person, so it’s pretty special. Our anise hyssop flowers are ridiculous. I could go on and on.
SRO: Well I want you to go on and on! What are some of your favorite novelty plants?
RL: Some of our visitors are quite timid about touching and eating leaves straight off a plant. So we try to lead them through a journey starting with more accessible flavors and then taking them to more exotic varieties.
Red-veined sorrel (Rumex sanguineus var. sanguineus) is great because it has a sour, citrusy taste that you can’t see coming because it has very little aroma. I love purple oxalis (Oxalis triangularis) too—again it has a citrus note, but with beautiful purple triangular leaves that are striking and alien.
We normally finish people off with our Toothache Plant (Acmella oleracea), which is also known as buzz buttons, and has an outrageous numbing sensation that can be a little like a (safe) trip.
SRO: Yes. I remember that one well. Now I grow it in my home and freak people out when they taste it. Haha. So how do you encourage chefs to try and adopt some of the more out-of-the-box herbs and greens, like toothache plant?
RL: The best way to introduce things to chefs is to bring them the product, or bring them to the farm and have them taste and smell it. Sometimes we’ll go through a menu with a chef and suggest items that might match with what they are already making.
Experienced chefs don’t really need much coaching once they find flavors that fit within their restaurant’s style or region. They are like the painter doing the creative work while we just supply the color palette to work with.
Home cooks need a little more education on what goes with what, so we’re spending quite a lot of time building up flavor pairings and recipe guides for people to reference. Sometimes it can be as simple as saying “instead of using regular basil, why not try using Pluto basil, which has smaller, more delicate leaves and a more powerful aroma”.
SRO: Are those of us, particularly in the city, becoming more adventurous, culinary-speaking?
RL: New York has more food delivery options than anywhere else on the planet. More fine-dining restaurants than anyone sane could visit in a lifetime. The food scene is ridiculously competitive and trend-driven. But are we adventurous? Maybe it’s easier to define what I think being adventurous is, and what it isn’t.
I don’t think being adventurous or being a “foodie” means going to the most expensive sushi place you can find. I do think it’s about getting to know a chef well enough, and visiting a small place enough times that they bring you out a dish they’re still working on. Do that.
I think most people haven’t really tried most of the fresh ingredients that are available locally in New York state. Let alone the fancy stuff we grow at Farm.One. Do that.
I don’t think being adventurous is buying the fanciest cut of meat at Whole Foods. I do think it’s about actually experimenting. And being prepared to throw out a dish. Because guess what? You tried something. And it didn’t actually work. And that’s OK. Do that.
That’s why I always think adventurousness in food has its limits if you don’t actually cook.
And fundamentally New Yorkers eat more than we cook. OK. We’re a city with tiny kitchens and ubiquitous convenience. But we can all do a little better. I would still love to see more food writing on helping people to design their own recipes or how to experiment with interesting ingredients and simple flavor combinations, versus just endless recipes for people to follow.
I’d love to see more spectacular disasters in home kitchens than recreations of ‘perfect’ dishes in blog posts. I’d love to see more writing that shows people how to make a vegetable taste stupidly delicious. Lucky Peach is consistently the best example of that kind of writing, and no one seems capable even of trying to copy it (so far).
We’ve come so far though. If I think back to my parents’ generation in the UK, having an Indian meal was seen as adventurous. New York has always been culturally forward, but the fact that the (very mainstream and fancy) food court downstairs in Brookfield place serves Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Vietnamese and Chinese food without anyone blinking an eye should be seen as an achievement.
Over the next few years we will see more fine dining coming from some of the currently-forgotten corners of the world. We will see Michelin stars going to Cambodian, Nepalo, Kazakh, Moroccan, Ethiopian chefs. Which in turn will mean more people being adventurous enough to try those cuisines because they will be “safe” enough and accessible. Before we know it, our bourgeois food court will have an Eritrean option.
On the one hand, yes, that’s just adventurousness through training. But it’s still pretty damn cool, and I think New York does that as well as anywhere else in the world. Be proud.
SRO: Awesomness. Thanks Rob. Looking forward to getting more cuts of your new varieties to grow in my home and also to visit your new space! 🌿