Automated mushroom farms are the neon-colored future of urban farming

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Smallhold is distributing automated mushroom farms to restaurants and grocery stores. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK (SBG) - If you find yourself sitting at the bar in The Standard’s East Village location, it’s inevitable that your eyes will be drawn to the bright blue boxes installed high above the shelves of liquor bottles.

Giving off an aquarium-like glow, these tanks are home not to exotic fish but to some of the most intriguing and beautiful mushrooms that you’ll ever see. You’re looking at the source of the restaurant’s mushrooms, the very ingredients that might end up on your plate, and the future of urban farming.

“Mushrooms are so exciting of a food right now,” said Andrew Carter, CEO and co-founder of Smallhold, the company responsible for those glowing blue boxes and the mushrooms growing within them.

Smallhold’s other co-founder, Adam DeMartino, describes them with a similar sense of admiration: “They’re just generally a mysterious entity.”

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While “exciting” and “mysterious” may not have been the first words to pop into your mind when thinking about mushrooms, the high-tech display at Cafe Standard is sure to inspire enough curiosity and awe that you’ll find yourself inclined to agree. Smallhold’s futuristic-looking distributed “mini farms” are successfully creating enthusiasm around fresh, local produce by enabling mushrooms to grow in some off-the-wall (or, in the case of Cafe Standard, on-the-wall) locations.

“I’ve been growing all sorts of different produce for quite some time, mainly leafy greens and herbs, and then realized that there was this massive amount of interest in the mushroom space right now,” Carter said. He came together with his former University of Vermont roommate, DeMartino, to start exploring the possibilities.

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What started as an experiment in a Brooklyn basement made its way to a shipping container at North Brooklyn Farms in Williamsburg and quickly grew to several restaurants around New York City, starting with Bunker Vietnamese in Bushwick.

At the newly opened Maison Yaki, the most recent addition to Smallhold’s ever-expanding restaurant roster, the mushrooms have become the most popular dish on the menu. The king trumpet mushrooms are poached, skewered, and grilled over coals, then covered in an à la grecque sauce.

Chef and owner Greg Baxtrom is not surprised by their popularity. “I mean, you can see the mushrooms growing from out in front of the street, and people come in and ask, ‘What’s going on up there?’ So, it’s a no-brainer that people come in and want them,” he said. “Everyone comments on the mushrooms.”

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And if it’s the appearance of the mini farms that convinces customers to order the mushrooms, it’s the taste that will keep them coming back for more. “It’s a better product for sure than some of the ones we were buying,” said Max Blachman-Gentile, chef de cuisine at The Standard.

“A lot of people don’t think of just biting into an oyster mushroom raw as something that’s super appetizing, but with these, you actually can,” he added.

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With freshness playing such an integral role in the taste of produce, it’s tough to beat something that’s harvested directly in the restaurant.

As your typical mushroom sits on trucks, travels across state lines, and spends days on grocery store shelves before making its way onto your plate, Smallhold’s mushrooms can be plucked from their substrate and served the same day. The only limitation to the harvesting at restaurants like Cafe Standard and Maison Yaki is finding an appropriate time to have someone climb up on a ladder behind the bar.

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“It adds an extra 10 minutes usually to harvesting,” said DeMartino of the ladder usage, “but it also benefits the restaurant. Oftentimes, people will see their produce being harvested right before they eat it, which a crazy thing. That sort of theater encourages people to buy more mushrooms, but it also gives people a connection to the produce.”

When a restaurant initially integrates the mushroom farms into their decor, Smallhold sends someone from the company to assist with the harvesting. Eventually, the restaurant will fully take over those responsibilities. But aside from the physical harvesting, everything related to growing the mushrooms is done remotely, making the process as simple as possible for Smallhold’s clients.

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“They don’t actually have to think too much about how to grow these crops,” explained Carter. A “brain” takes sensor information from inside the farm to ensure that the conditions within the systems are optimized for mushroom production. From their Brooklyn headquarters, Smallhold can use this data to control the climate of their units across the city, adjusting essential factors like the temperature and the humidity as needed.

It’s this level of automation that has enabled Smallhold to expand from a single shipping container to its current list of clients in the New York City area. In addition to the restaurants and hotels growing mushrooms on-site, the mini farms can be found in several Whole Foods grocery stores.

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By selling the mushrooms in grocery stores, Smallhold hopes to change shoppers’ perspectives on where their produce is coming from and to encourage them to more deeply consider the products that they are purchasing. While sampling the mushrooms in-store, consumers will often ask where the produce was grown, not expecting an answer quite so hyper-local as “right here.”

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With the success of the automation, along with the growing interest in mushrooms and the widespread desire for local produce, Smallhold is looking toward further expansion.

“Smallhold was built to scale,” said DeMartino.

“Any one of our farms produces between 30 and 120 pounds of mushrooms, but that’s actually not that much,” he said. “But if you put them together, we actually produce as much as a medium-sized farm and, soon, a large farm. That isn’t limited by any square footage or acreage. It’s only limited by the amount of farms that we can make at any given time. So, it can actually spread infinitely.”