Farmer Josh is Bringing Ultra Local Food to NYC (and Asking Hard Questions About Our Food System)

Farmer Josh is Bringing Ultra Local Food to NYC (and Asking Hard Questions About Our Food System)

Josh Lee may have grown up on a farm in North Carolina, but he never expected to end up a farmer himself -– especially not in New York City. And yet that’s exactly what the fifth-generation farmer has done with Green Top Farms, a “seed-to-salad” delivery service that brings ultra fresh, ultra local food to offices throughout NYC, in the hopes of helping people think more about where their food comes from.

Fifth-Generation Farmer from NC to NYC

At 18, Lee left the farming life behind, and he was never encouraged to return.

“Even though I was farming every summer, it wasn’t something that I was encouraged to stay and do,” he says. “’You’ve got to go to college; be a doctor or a lawyer, some sort of professional career.’”

For Lee, the calling came from education, and so he became a special education teacher in New York City. But while Lee was living and working in the Bronx, he never quite abandoned his farming roots. He kept up an interest in the industry, particularly in new developments like vertical farming, which allows growers to produce food in vertically stacked layers, thus using a smaller footprint of space – within a shipping container or building, for example.

“I kind of became in-tune with vertical farming and urban farming in general, when I saw this Colbert Report back in 2008,” he says. “I just thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”

While Lee still had no intentions of going back into farming – at least not until he was retired – vertical farming piqued enough of an interest for him to set up a Google Alert, which yielded maybe an article every few months. Of course, that was all about to change.

Taking Vertical Farming to New Heights

Over the years, Lee’s Google Alert yielded more and more information, and in 2014, Lee decided to join the trend. He left teaching to found Green Top Farms, a hydroponic urban growing experiment. The farm grows microgreens, which are harvested daily and paired with local, seasonal ingredients to create delicious salads, which can either be ordered individually or, the company’s specialty, for “farm-to-work” salad bars, delivered right to your office.

“I don’t know if in a blind taste test it tastes better,” says Lee, “but for me, knowing where food comes from, it always tastes better, because it comes with a story, something behind it.”

green top farms

Over the past three years, the project has grown exponentially, and now, Green Top Farms is looking for more space. The company’s new Kickstarter project was created with the hope of moving into a new 1,000 square foot location that will combine hydroponic farming and kitchen.

“Right now we are completely squeezed where we are,” says Lee. “We have a very small growing operation, and everything we’re growing is being used.”

But while Lee and his colleagues can be applauded for their success, they are still encountering one major problem – a problem that’s plaguing not just these local food producers, but America’s food system on the whole: transparent sourcing. While Lee and his colleagues know exactly where their microgreens come from, they have to rely on external sources for their other salad ingredients, and sometimes, no matter how hard they try, even they don’t know where these foods are coming from.

Local Food is a Question of Education

It was when Lee was first teaching that he realized what a huge problem the lack of transparency in our food system is.

“That’s where I really saw the night and day contrast with how I grew up and my relationship with food and farming and the kids I was teaching and their relationship to food and farming,” he says of the Bronx high schoolers he was working with.

“I remember interrupting the whole lesson several times to explain the difference between a fruit snack and a real fruit or explain why they spell cheese with a z in some of these ‘cheez’ snacks: because it’s not real cheese.”

Lee’s roots in education persist in his new career: he continues to teach people about these important issues through Green Top Farms.

“I tell our customers, ‘Well, we know where some of it comes from, but we don’t know where all of it comes from, and we think that’s a problem, so help us move in that direction of more transparency.’”

Fixing Our Food System One Salad at a Time

Green Top Farms is, at its core, a micro-solution to a macro-problem. From the depletion of the rainforests to the death of pollinators to the record rates of diabetes, problems related to food and nutrition are skyrocketing in this country, problems that Lee believes are all inextricably linked.

“I personally think that all of those problems come from the fact that we’re really just not in touch with what we’re eating,” he says.

“If you’re really serious about having a better food system, then we not only have to change some of the things we’re doing in farming and improve our distribution so that we’re not wasting so much food, we also have to change the way we’re eating,” he says. “And that’s on all of us.”

Green Top Farms is doing its part to reconnect people with their food: not only by growing it close to where people live, but in being open about all the work that still needs to be done. But at least as far as Lee is concerned, it’s a true labor of love.

“I’ve never been so broke, I’ve never eaten so well, and I’ve never been so happy, all at once,” he says. “I’m living my dream life, for sure.”

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco