A funny thing happened on my birthday this year. Rather than taking the day off to get spa treatments and eat cake, I had the privilege of viewing a presentation delivered by Josh Lee, a.k.a., "Farmer Josh," the co-founder of Green Top Farms: A Queens-based urban farming company that grows and distributes salad greens to New Yorkers.
Along with his business partner, Thomas Thekkekandam, and associate Kyle Goldstein, Lee operates Green Top Farms in a way that looks to address the many problems of the current U.S. food system. To start, one of the company's aspirations is to have a negative carbon footprint within 10 years. But urban farming, particularly with the vertical systems used by Green Top, also speaks to (and can possibly resolve) issues like food accessibility, scale and affordability. The company offers a subscription plan of four salads for $20 per week, a bonafide bargain in New York, and also invites its customers to partake in the Green Top Challenge: "Eat 4 microgreen salads a week for 10 weeks and track changes in your weight, blood pressure and how you feel."
Before launching Green Top Farms, Lee worked as a special education teacher in New York: An experience that continues to motivate the work he does today. “I couldn’t get past the fact that we had kids coming to school hungry, every single day,” he says. “You hear all kinds of stories that are just horrible. That was the one that stuck with me the most, because that was the one that made the least amount of sense. We have food being thrown away, probably two train stops from where we have kids going hungry.”
It doesn't hurt that the founders of Green Top Farms are, without question, complete and utter dream boats. They are whip-smart; Thekkekandam is a McKinsey alum, Lee holds a degree in exercise sports science from UNC Chapel Hill, and Goldstein, like Lee, is a former teacher. They're equipped with the knowledge and ambition to back up their goals to, according to Lee, “be instrumental in changing our food system, and really be leaders in vertical farming.”
In the course of transcribing my interview with Lee, it dawned on me: If I don’t share the brilliant quotes I've captured from him, I am robbing my readers. This man is fired up, and the rest of us should be, too.
On the growing rates of hunger in the U.S., while obesity is on the rise:“The dissonance is reflective of the distance between who grows the food, and who eats the food. In our quest to be more efficient - which I sometimes love and sometimes hate - we’ve gotten really good at growing more and more calories...at the expense of the nutritional value of those calories. That’s because we’ve killed the dirt, essentially. Even peaches have way less nutritional value than they did 50 years ago. The same peach tree is producing peaches that are less nutritious, simply because we have not taken care of the soil that we’re growing them in.”
On experience as a teacher:“I used to think that education was the solution to societal problems. Now, I think the problems in the education system are a symptom of bigger societal problems, mainly wealth inequality. That’s the root of the problem, just vast inequality.”
On the accessibility to and expense of healthy food: “We [at Green Top Farms] grow enough now to feed 9 billion people. It’s not a growing problem. That’s a faux-argument. Anybody who wants to talk to you about agriculture and how we need to improve the efficiency? No. Wrong. We need to improve our distribution, to make sure everybody gets the food that we’re already growing. We need to eat higher quality food, and we need to make sure that the hungriest, poorest people have access to the highest quality food, if nothing else. ... It doesn’t make any sense to not provide people with nutritious food, because you end up paying for it on the back end [with] medical costs and a host of other things."
On the statistic that more than 50 percent of farmers worldwide can't afford to feed themselves: “I don’t even have a word for that. Weird? Strange? Embarrassing? Terrible? That makes as little sense as hungry kids.”
On transparency in farming, and Green Top Farms’ plans for a 24/7 webcam broadcast of its growing facilities: “You shouldn’t be trying to hide how you grow people’s food. It’s ridiculous. Now that I’m getting into urban farming, you have people coming in from a lot of different sides: Tech...business...idealists. Once in a while, you hear someone say, ‘We have this new, proprietary growing technology.’ Do you really? What does a plant need? Water, lights, nutrients. How many different ways can you get that to a plant? There’s aeroponics, there’s aquaponics...NASA’s growing plants in space. Plants are pretty resilient, and they’ll grow under a lot of different circumstances, but I don’t think there’s too many ways of growing them ‘proprietarily’.”
On what farming should look like:“We just need to farm differently. The only problem is that it would be less profitable to the people who are making money now, and that’s the biggest thing that we have preventing us from wide-scale change. … Just change it back. Everybody used to farm organically and take care of the soil. Vertical farming is going to be the farming of the future, at least in terms of fruits and vegetables, because you can grow so much in such a dense space. We’ll still need to grow some things in dirt, but it would be great if we could turn some of the huge factory farms either back into forests and suck up some carbon out of the atmosphere, or even turn them into tree farms.”
On how to make that happen:“How do you do anything? You have to have a lot of money, you have to know the right people, you have to make the right connections, you have to get involved. One person can’t do it. There has to be a collective, ‘We’re demanding this. We’re tired of eating crap. We want to eat real food again.’”
When asked if it's possible to feed the world without factory farming:“I can grow a hundred salads a week in my closet. Yes.”
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