NSJ Startup Farmecology Seeks to Redefine Urban Farming

Step into the spacious headquarters of San Jose startup Farmecology, and the first thing you notice are the glowing racks. But at this startup, they’re not filled with servers.

From left, Steve Oster, Phil Fok, of Farmecology

Instead, delicate microgreens – kale, arugula, and specialty lettuces — thrive under countless LED bulbs casting a purple glow. The 14,000-square-foot Farmecology space is equivalent, company executives say, to roughly 50 acres of traditional farmland. And it’s a whole lot more efficient.

“It takes 70 gallons of water to grow one head of lettuce,” cofounder and CEO Phil Fok said. “We can do the same in this environment with the equivalent of a tall Starbuck’s cup of water. It’s hyper-efficient.”

His goal is nothing short of revolutionizing the way we grow and consume food. Think: urban farms closer to population centers, cutting out the freshness-killing and greenhouse-gas-producing long-haul transportation component of today’s agriculture-industrial complex. With Farmecology’s model, greens can be delivered to the end user within a few hours of harvest.

And why a San Jose industrial park?

“If you can prove it’s economically feasible to do this in Silicon Valley, you can do it anywhere,” Fok said.

They’re not the only ones working on feeding the world from the world’s greatest high-tech hub. Companies in Silicon Valley are working on better faux-meat products (Impossible Foods), automated farming (Blue River Technologies, recently acquired by John Deere), and more efficient large-scale farming (The Climate Corporation, acquired by Google). Farmecology’s industry sector is known as “controlled environment agriculture,” and it includes hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and aquaponics (a system that combines hydroponics with raising fish to create a symbiotic environment).

Fok and CTO Steve Oster both come from technology backgrounds, and the company’s patented system includes many technological innovations. But if you are looking for robots that water plants, or exotic growing mediums, you have come to the wrong place.

Instead, Farmecology uses predominantly over-the-counter equipment including racks, LED lighting, and plastic trays. The growing medium? It’s traditional soil, rather than a hydroponic medium that is commonly used for indoor growing.

“When you think about why a grape in Bordeaux tastes the way it does and why that cannot be replicated even in similar climates, it has a lot to do with the soil,” Oster said. “Soil contains trace elements and micronutrients that simply cannot be replicated by just feeding a plant nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. We use science to optimize nature, not replace it.”

Farmecology also features many of the lean manufacturing concepts they learned in their tech careers. The end result is a productive urban farm that produces essentially zero waste. “Our biggest expense by far is rent,” Fok said. “Our electricity, water, and labor costs are miniscule in comparison.”

Farmecology adds a custom organic fertilizer blend to the soil prior to planting and the plants are provided precise amounts of water and light. No pesticides are ever used.

Phil Fok. CEO of Farmecology

“When you bake a cake, you measure everything precisely,” Fok said. “That’s the approach. We’re borrowing techniques from baking.”

Fok attributes the success of the system to looking at the entire process without any preconceived notions. “We didn’t know what we weren’t supposed to do, and that helped us a lot.”

Although the company is experimenting with several vegetable groups, the core of its production is high-end leafy greens. Rare varieties of spinach and arugula that are commercially impractical to grow outdoors fill the stacked trays throughout the farm. If you are wondering where you might be able to find this produce, stay tuned. Farmecology plans to sell through wholesale distribution channels focused on restaurant customers: These greens will soon be coming to a plate near you.