In the Hudson Valley, farm-to-table is less of a foodie trend and more of a way of life. As an ideal, it’s woven into the threads of the community, crisscrossing its way between farms, artisans, restaurants, and the locals who support them all.
Even during the COVID-19 crisis, when so many in the region struggle to find their footing, the movement lives on through support for farm markets and restaurants, many of which are in new territory when it comes to delivery and takeout.
Yet it’s never gone quite this far. Or, ahem, this high.
In a first for the Hudson Valley, farm-to-table takes a vertical turn. It’s all thanks to Vertical Field, an Israel-based agro-tech startup that crafts vertical agricultural solutions that make access to food easier and faster while reducing waste and cutting down on human handling – a major boon during a time of social distancing.
“Vertical Field offers a revolutionary way to eat the freshest greens and herbs by producing soil-based indoor vertical farms grown at the very location where food is consumed,” explains Vertical Field’s Chief Executive Officer Guy Elitzur. “Our urban farms give new meaning to the term ‘farm-to-table’ because one can virtually pick their own greens and herbs at supermarkets, restaurants, or other retail sites.”
While Vertical Field has installed gardens across the Middle East and Europe, it’s recently found a home at Poughkeepsie’s Farmers & Chefs, where chef and owner John Lekic uses it to take the hyperlocal experience at his restaurant even further.
“It’s making a full circle for a chef and restaurateur,” he says. “You get to serve the food you not only prepared or cooked, but you also grew from seed to plate.”
When Lekic first came across Vertical Field during an exhibition at the Culinary Institute of America in late 2019, he was hooked from the start. Knowing that the system would be a perfect fit for his concept, he ordered one for his Hudson River food truck-turned-eatery.
Lekic’s vertical garden arrived two days after Governor Cuomo mandated the closure of on-premise restaurant operations in New York State.
“It was a lot of anxiety and uncertainty,” Lekic recalls. For the safety of his staff, he called for a break in operations to ensure no one was sick. During that time, he dedicated himself to setting up his vertical field. “It kept us busy. We installed our farm and planted about 10 days after. We already had our first crop.”
A rapid turnaround time is one of the pros of Vertical Field gardens, which take about three to four weeks per harvest. According to Lekic, he anticipates he’ll be able to grow about 400 pounds of produce per month. Much of it will be salad greens such as buttercrunch lettuce, kale, and arugula, although he also planted herbs like rosemary, sage, and basil.
While Lekic appreciates the convenience of the garden, which resides onsite at the restaurant for customers to see, he also loves that it’s a bug-free, pesticide-free operation with less need for human contact. With fewer intermediary steps (no transportation from producer to restaurant, for example) and up to 90 percent less water required than in a traditional garden, Vertical Field urban landscapes are just about as eco-friendly as it gets.
“You can definitely taste that,” Lekic enthuses. “There are no chemicals. That’s a great experience.”
Just as Lekic values the freshness, so too do his customers. Farmers & Chefs is open for delivery and pickup during quarantine, so consumers are able to taste the metaphoric fruits of the garden’s labor for themselves. In fact, the garden has been such a hit that Lekic is brainstorming ways to incorporate the produce into more unique offerings.
“We make housemade ice cream with brown fennel and pistachio,” he says. “We’re playing around with some product that we aspire to take to market.”
Lekic may be the first to install a Vertical Field in the Hudson Valley, but he’s already paved the way for others. In Monsey, Evergreen Supermarket will soon have a sky-high garden of its own.
“I heard about [Vertical Field] through some people from Israel who showed me how some vertical farms are being set up in supermarkets,” explains supermarket representative Menachem Lubinsky. If not for the COVID-19 outbreak, he adds, Evergreen’s vertical garden would already be in place. As it stands now, the market expects the container will be delivered soon.
“I’m very excited about it,” says Lubinsky. “The technology allows it to have constantly changing light and heat. It eliminates the transfer from farm to supermarket and guarantees supplies.”
Lubinsky expects that Evergreen’s clientele, many of whom are already interested in more natural, organic products, will take to the Vertical Field produce immediately. Since Evergreen will set the container up in its parking lot, customers will be able to watch the garden grow during every shopping trip. If all goes well, the store may even purchase a second Vertical Field for its store in Lakewood, NJ.
“Almost everything you want to grow can grow,” Lubinsky enthuses. Fingers crossed, he hopes strawberries will soon be available for Vertical Field gardens, too.