Stiegler: Sustainable Food Production Starts Locally

Ari Stiegler

Grocery store customers in the New York metro area are accustomed to shopping for ingredients grown in all corners of the United States. Walk the aisles of any Brooklyn co-op and you’ll find vegetables from California, striped bass from North Carolina, leafy greens from Arizona and a litany of other products from across the country—except, of course, the city. It’s not too easy to grow lettuce in Williamsburg, after all.

But Upward Farms begs to differ. The Brooklyn-based hydroponic startup has developed a novel indoor aquaponic ecosystem designed to sustainably grow leafy greens and bass in specialized facilities that can be developed in communities across the country. This model harnesses the power of natural microbiomes to grow pesticide and hormone-free food in locations near consumers, limiting the use of the chemicals and shipping methods that make commercial agriculture a significant contributor to pollution and climate change.

“Upward Farms holds the deep conviction that the food we eat should come from well-functioning ecosystems and microbiomes—not from artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or growth hormones,” said Ari Stiegler, whose venture capital firm, Flux Capital, is an investor in Upward Farms.

Stiegler explained that Upward Farms’ model replicates complicated ecological processes within a controlled facility, sustainability producing food on the doorstep of the communities for whom it is intended.

“Upward Farms are centered around fisheries, which sustainably farm mercury, pesticide, and hormone-free bass,” said Stiegler. “These fish produce water rich in nutrients and nitrifying bacteria, which is then used to help nourish leafy greens, grown on-site in a specialized environment that provides the ideal lighting, temperature, and nutrition for the plants at every phase of growth. The unique microbiome that results from the interactions between the fish and the plants boosts production yields for both—making Upward Farms more sustainable and more productive than alternative methods of farming.”

Aquaponics—an agricultural method that combines aquaculture with the water-based cultivation of plants—has been used for centuries, and in recent years the industry has seen an investment boom. Yet, Stiegler explained, Upward Farms has distinguished itself as an industry innovator for the way in which it benefits both production and consumers.

“Many existing aquaponic operations continue to rely on synthetic nutrients and chemicals to enhance plant growth,” Stiegler said. “Yet, only about 1 percent of the beneficial bacteria and microbes produced in soil can be replicated in the lab—leaving plants in many aquaponics operations without the nutrients they need. Upward Farms’ model creates the comprehensive natural microbiome that nature intended, leaving its plants better nourished, healthier, and chemical-free. This is of course appealing to grocers, who demand significant yields, and consumers, who are increasingly reticent to consume synthetic substances.”

Upward Farms, Stiegler said, also relies on automated production, which is used to move plants through different growing environments and harvest when fully grown.

All of these technologies, Stiegler explained, are housed seamlessly within the same facility. Because Upward Farms has cultivated its own microbiome, these facilities can be located in cities across the country, helping consumers access fresh, healthy food.

“From an investment standpoint, Upward Farms offers significant advantages,” said Stiegler. “Its model aligns closely with consumer demand for sustainable, healthy food, helps combat climate change and pollution, and can be scaled to include locations across the country.”