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Roof crops (updated)

Jersey City-based Green Food Solutions is changing the economics of farming. To see how, just look up

Mary Wetherill and Electra Jarvis owners of Green Food Solutions in Jersey City. - AARON HOUSTON

Mary Wetherill and Electra Jarvis owners of Green Food Solutions in Jersey City. –

Electra Jarvis and Mary Wetherill arrived at their passion via different roads; Jarvis, through sustainability and Wetherill, through nutrition. But what hydroponic farming can do to address issues in both realms spurred them to grow a company intent on bringing it to more people by lowering barriers to entry.

Jarvis and Wetherill run Green Food Solutions, a Jersey City-based company that sells hydroponic towers that grow produce using 90 percent less water than traditional dirt farming and either teaches customers revenue-generating ways to use them or offers services to run the farms themselves. The 5- to 8-foot towers, manufactured by Tower Farm, are just 2.5 feet in diameter, taking up 90 percent less space than the plot of land needed to grow the same amount of food.

With a footprint like that, Jarvis and Wetherill can work around one of the main barriers to entry of growing food in an urban environment: space.

For Jarvis, Green Food Solutions was born out of “seeing the kind of toll that industrial agriculture can have on the environment and finding solutions that mitigate that.” With a background in sustainable food systems, she noted that due to its smaller size, “we can pretty much do it anywhere. A rooftop, a basement. We’re reducing the miles that our food is traveling.”

One of Green Food Solutions’ hydroponic vertical gardens.

One of Green Food Solutions’ hydroponic vertical gardens. – AARON HOUSTON

Rooftops on older buildings are particularly fertile ground for hydroponic towers, Wetherill noted, because traditional soil farms are too heavy for those rooftops.

From a food security perspective, Jarvis called the Tower Farm “a tool for survival for cities, where you’re growing food close to the people who are eating it. Most of our food is imported from out of the country and on the East Coast much of it’s shipped across the U.S. from Arizona or California. [Hydroponic farming] is a way we can secure our food supply on a local level.”

According to the USDA, approximately 1 in 9 Americans were food insecure in 2018. That means over 37 million Americans are unable to access enough healthy food for a healthy lifestyle.

“Current statistics [say] about 50 percent of the world lives in urban areas. There’s a huge gap in the amount of healthy nutritious foods available to use in our own country,” said Wetherill, who came to Green Food Solutions out of her own journey in nutrition and an interest in sharing nutritional opportunity with others.

“Over the course of decades food has been outsourced to different countries. In urban areas, access was already an issue, and I didn’t see it getting better without innovation because the economics of farming always had to be scaled high,” she said.

Going places

Wetherill and Jarvis have created nine different service packages around the Tower Farm.

At Denizen, a luxury apartment building in Brooklyn, the rooftop Farm Stand program allows residents to purchase freshly harvested, fully packaged produce.

“It’s a cutting-edge amenity that really sets them apart in the market,” Wetherill said. “Real estate agents who were leasing out the building said ‘keep that farm open as long as possible.’ They insisted we keep the farm looking great even before the building was occupied.”

Rooftop farm workshop hosted by Green Food Solutions

Rooftop farm workshop hosted by Green Food Solutions. –

In the business of buying and selling apartments, the amenities arms race makes for a competitive market. Denizen was able to set itself apart from other apartment buildings nearby with the farm program.

In the Modern CSA program, tenants receive freshly harvested food weekly to their apartment or office, and have a say in what’s grown. In the Farm to Table program, they grow produce for sale in an associated restaurant or grocery store. In the Garden Plot model, tenants manage their own towers after receiving education from Jarvis or Wetherill.

The duo lease, sell, install, and maintain the towers, as well as educate folks on how to use them and what can grow: leafy greens like kale and lettuce; fruits like strawberries and melons; and vegetables including cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers.

Their New Jersey clients are varied, from a mixed-use development in Jersey City called Hoboken Brownstone that has agreed to buy towers for a rooftop farm that will then supply a floor-level grocery store to a Jersey City colonic business, Doody Free Girl, which bought one tower. Families in Montclair, New Brunswick, and Jersey City have bought towers for their homes.

At a trade show in Amsterdam last year, Wetherill and Jarvis connected with a Kenyan business that’s since purchased more than 80 towers to lease out to schools for educational purposes.

Indoor vertical farm.

Indoor vertical farm. 

“It seems really great [to have] the technology in education systems to inform the future of growing food, especially in areas like Kenya where water is such a scarcity,” Wetherill said. “That education of how to grow in innovative and newer ways, that’s what brought them to that trade show in Amsterdam.”

Growth for growth

In January, Green Food Solutions was accepted into a year-long accelerator program, with the first month in Kamiyama Japan and the remaining 11 months engaged online. The Sector S6IX Accelerator Program, which focuses on growing agtech and food tech businesses, is co-founded by the International Chamber of Innovation Commerce and Enterprise and Green Valley.

It began Feb. 20, and moving forward will have access to American and foreign intellectual property attorneys and finance experts. With them, they plan to develop an online platform to teach people how to use Tower Farm to grow food sustainably and turn it into a revenue stream, thus expanding their reach from in-person training and maintenance.

“The power of a new local food system works for sustainability, security, for the health of our planet,” Wetherill said. “We truly do believe we need a new food system and that by empowering [people to be local farmers] can create a new market in these new areas.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:19 p.m. EST on March 12, 2020 to correct the name of the accelerator program that Green Foods Solutions participated with in January.

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.