Growing a gourmet herb empire from a glowing New York basement

Interview: OWEN MYERS

Owen Myers: What’s happening on your farm today?

Rob Laing: We’ve just finished up our harvest, which we start around 6.30 in the morning. My farm is called Farm.One and we supply microgreens, edible flowers and rare herbs to about 35 restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

OM: And where are we exactly?

RL: Tribeca, Manhattan. We're underneath a restaurant called Atera, which has two Michelin stars. It's one of the best restaurants in the city.

OM: Before I came in I had to put on blue shoe covers. Why are those needed?

RL: It's to stop you from bringing pests in. You see these little sachets? These are the eggs of beneficial insects. It's all biological pest control here. You might see some little ladybugs walking around.

OM: It’s so warm in here – almost tropical.

RL: We keep it at 75–80°F [23–26°C] normally. And that's the perfect temperature for these plants. We use these moving racks for them, so they're on tracks.

OM: Like in an archive.

RL: Exactly. They're actually the same ones that the New York Public Library uses for their collections. Every square foot is important. We stack up the layers, and that's what people call vertical farming. So, it's this idea that you can stack, and it's only become possible because of LED lights.

Ladybirds are often referred to as a gardener’s best friend due to their voracious appetites for aphids and other small pests. Rob is wearing clothing by COS.

OM: What's special about the LEDs?

RL: This bar [he gestures to a rig of pink LEDs] only uses about 30 watts of power. Remember those incandescent bulbs that would be 100 watts for something almost as bright? It's become way more efficient. And the LEDs don't give off much heat, so the plants can get right up against them without burning.

OM: So, technology is to thank for making this way of farming possible?

RL: Totally. That's why you're seeing a lot more of these vertical farming companies coming up. Everybody else is really focusing on the mainstream, like leafy greens for supermarket salad mixes. But we're the first to grow this range of crops, and to do it right in the middle of the city. There’s about 600 different seed varieties that we work with. We've always been focused on rare crops that are much more interesting and flavourful. I'll give you an example, this is a little Thai basil flower. Smell it first, and then you can eat it.

OM: The smell is so strong, and it tastes so zingy. You can imagine how a tiny piece of it could transform a dish.

RL: I'll show you a photo that was just posted to Instagram by Eleven Madison Park, one of the world's best restaurants. These are our little nepitella flowers just lined up on a cake.

OM: That's beautiful. Have you always been a foodie?

RL: Yes. But before I started Farm.One I was living in Japan, and I had a start-up there called Gengo, a language translation company. I got more and more interested in food in Japan, and when I left, I did a couple of culinary classes. I knew I wasn't good enough to be a chef, but I was like, "All these ingredients are really exciting."

OM: Was there any ingredient that had a particular wow-factor for you?

RL: I'll show you. Round here, there's a plant called papalo. And so if I break this off...

OM: …I can smell it already.

RL: Have a taste of that. It's really unusual.

OM: It's peppery, but hard to describe.

RL: Some people say they get notes of cilantro, pepper, some citrus... I came across that at the farmers' market in Santa Monica, California, and I was, like, “Why haven't I heard of this before?” I went back two weeks later, and it was gone. I thought, “Wouldn't it be cool if there was a way to grow this year-round?” So that's what I decided to do.

OM: I know that this is a hydroponic farm, but what does that mean?

RL: It means that you're growing plants in a water-based nutrient solution instead of soil. If you come over here, you'll see this stuff that looks like soil, but it's actually recycled coconut husk and peat moss. It forms a neutral substrate for the plant to grow in, and then the water provides the nutrients. We oxygenate the water with air bubblers.

OM: Like you would in a goldfish tank.

RL: Kind of. And in the water is a biological mix of nutrients. You can do hydroponics with chemical fertilisers, which is a very reliable way to do it, but the taste isn't there.

OM: Why are the lights in here pink?

RL: The pink ones are actually slightly older lights. The reason our logo is pink is partly because of the pinkish lights, but people are moving more towards full-spectrum white lights. We’re just buying and testing new lights all the time, seeing what works. When you're growing a huge range of crops like this, it's really hard to find one lighting that fits all of them. But we try.