“To me, taste is the most important test you can have,” said Lee Mandell, at right, founder of Boswyck Farms. “You can test for sugar content and all kinds of other things, but if your produce doesn’t pass the taste test, what’s the use?”
Standing in the oasis of greenery that is his farm, and also his Bushwick loft, Mr. Mandell, 47, hands me a sprig of Thai lemon basil. “You’re not going to get it any fresher,” said the urban farmer. “You simply can’t get closer to production than this.”
Plucked directly from a growing trough by his living room window, the basil conveys hints of citrus mingled with a subtle, savory curry. Growing nearby are tomatoes, eggplant, and sweet peppers, and soon, kale and lettuce.
While Mr. Mandell is devoted to growing produce that tastes good, his vision for Boswyck Farms extends well beyond his attention to the palate. He is a hydroponic farmer, sustaining his plants by using systems of circulating water, rather than soil, to disperse nutrients to their roots. The method is known to produce higher crop yields and higher quality plants with less space than soil-based methods. (See slide show below.)
The idea of living locally is one of the major philosophies that drive Mr. Mandell’s work. The name Boswyck comes from the neighborhood’s original moniker when it was a farming community prior to the unification of Brooklyn. Now, Bushwick is known for its sprawling industrial warehouses and the Newtown Creek, a body of water that bore the brunt of a 17 million gallon oil spill some 60 years back.
Boswyck Farms, a small-scale venture run out of Mr. Mandell’s loft apartment on Dekalb Avenue, is still in its early stages. Up until this past weekend, when Mr. Mandell and his partners Chloë Bass and Amy Lucker began selling pesto made from Boswyck basil at a festival in Bushwick’s Maria Hernandez Park, the project has been non-commercial.
"I’m very much in the experimental phase right now, I just keep learning,” said Mr. Mandell. “This place isn’t set up as a production system. We’re testing things out – seeing what works, what doesn’t work – before I scale up to something where there will be more production."
Eventually, the business trio would like to sell at green markets and, further down the road, donate a percentage of their fruits and vegetables to local food pantries. Mr. Mandell has also been in talks with Roberta’s Pizza, nearby on Moore Street, to whom he hopes to begin selling vegetables.
Mr. Mandell began to tinker with hydroponics after relocating from Boston to Bushwick a year and a half ago. In Boston, his sunny apartment with south-facing windows was conducive to growing all kinds of plants, but upon moving he acquired the first floor apartment where he currently lives and works, which he describes as less naturally suited for indoor farming than his previous residence.
To continue gardening in his new abode, he had to purchase lights. A magazine called Growers Edge was included in the box of lights that arrived in the mail, and in it was an article about high-rise vertical hydroponic farming highlighting research done by Dickson Despommier, an environmental science and microbiology professor at Columbia University.
“Forty-story buildings that are just farms throughout the entire building,” explains Mr. Mandell. “That hasn’t happened yet, but I read the article and got really intrigued. I thought, ‘I can do this.’”
Although he has yet to construct a forty-story urban farm, Mr. Mandell has become a passionate advocate for the movement and an important player in urban farming, building relationships with other hydroponics-based organizations and forming a network that he hopes will advance the hydroponics movement and the development of urban gardening at large.
“I have this pie-in-the-sky goal of getting every rooftop in New York to be useful,” he said, referencing the unused real estate above the heads of city-dwellers that he believes should function as gardening spaces or wind and solar energy hubs.
“Hydroponics is an important component of producing large quantities of food within an urban environment,” he asserts. “It uses less water and obviously less soil, and especially in places that have slightly toxic soil that’s a very positive thing.”
Advocates for hydroponics say that it is an especially useful tool for urban environments, where space is limited. As it does not require soil, the method is also particularly advantageous for rooftop farming where weight, in addition to space, is a constraining factor.
Mr. Mandell admits that the method is not perfect for every crop or for every setting. “You wouldn’t do hydroponics for wheat,” he said, “because you need acres and acres for that. But fruits, vegetables, things like that are really ideal for hydroponics, especially in urban settings. It’s all about growing the right things in the right places.”
The simplest of the growing arrangements in Mr. Mandell’s apartment is made up of plastic soda bottles dangling from one another in a series of vertical columns suspended from the ceiling. The more complex ones require aquarium pumps, troughs, and small, fired clay pellets to hold the plants in place.
“Hydroponics can be both very simple and very complicated as you scale up,” he said. “But if you’re looking to do a small thing it’s not complicated at all – building things out of Coke bottles can be done with relatively inexpensive materials."
Fiercely committed to the idea of a de-centralized food production system, Mr. Mandell’s mission, he said, is to enlighten potential farmers on hydroponic farming through workshops and presentations. In May, he began holding workshops at Bug Labs in Lower Manhattan that offer participants a history of hydroponics, an overview of methods and techniques, and the opportunity to build personal hydroponic systems. The next scheduled workshop is this Saturday.
At the end of the month, Mr. Mandell will give a presentation in Harlem in conjunction with the Waterpod project that will, like his workshops, teach the basics of hydroponic farming. He is in the early stages of developing a hands-on hydroponic curriculum for middle and high school students, in which they would learn how to build their own systems. “They have to have something that they can have ownership of,” he said.
“There are a lot of kids who grow up in the city and have never seen food production. For them, produce comes wrapped in cellophane. The idea of it being actually attached to a plant is almost unreal.”
“The two biggest myths [about hydroponics are] the only thing you can grow is pot, which is just wrong, and that [hydroponics] is like frankenfoods, as if when you’re growing hydroponically you’re not getting the right nutrients and [your plants] are somehow artificial,” he continued. “The nutrients that reach the plants in a hydroponic system are very similar to what they would get if they were growing in soil.”
Although water is the primary agent in hydroponic growing, the method uses less water than traditional farming practices. Because of this, hydroponic farming is becoming more prevalent and more significant in regions that suffer from water scarcity such as the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.
In Tokyo, hydroponic farming has nearly replaced soil-based methods, while in Australia, experts estimate that 20% of the value of vegetable and floral production in the country comes from hydroponics. Similarly in Holland, hydroponics accounts for about half of the country’s fruits and vegetables.
Mr. Mandell insists that in the United States, use of hydroponic systems is vastly under-utilized. The biggest advancements in hydroponics in the U.S. have come from marijuana growers, not farming in urban environments.
Citing the space constraints of urban dwelling, Mr. Mandell believes that hydroponic farming is a tool that cities can use to address issues like the limited accessibility of fresh produce and air pollution created by transporting massive amounts of food from rural area into urban ones. The bottom line, according to Mr. Mandell, is that hydroponics is crucial for urban sustainability.
“It’s not the silver bullet that will solve everything,” he said, “but it’s an option, and it’s a good option.
“Teaching kids, especially, is incredibly important,” continued Mr. Mandell. “It’s a cliché, but they’re our future. There are a lot of kids who grow up in the city and have never seen food production. For them, produce comes wrapped in cellophane. The idea of it being actually attached to a plant is almost unreal.”