Reidy looking up at vertical farming as an urban option

Staff Writer

BALTIMORE (July 7, 2015) — When you talk to J.J. Reidy, you get the sense you’re talking to the type of farmer you’re going to see more of in the future — an entrepreneur with a master’s in business administration from Johns Hopkins University, a light background in organic farming and big designs on the agriculture industry’s challenging future.
He’s the kind of guy you’re also unlikely to find on the Eastern Shore, tending fields that stretch across the horizon.
“Our industrial ag system is set up to crash and burn, and we’re putting far too much pressure on the land,” Reidy said in an interview last week. “Our cities are growing and our arable land is diminishing. … We will have to look to our cities to supplement our ag production.”
So, the 27-year-old from Buffalo, N.Y., has started Urban Pastoral — a nonprofit that seeks to create a sustainable urban farming enterprise by growing food vertically in greenhouses on rooftops across Maryland’s largest city.
Eventually, he said he sees a farming facility that could grow up to 300,000 pounds of greens and herbs each year or enough to feed a school system’s students.
His team, which includes fellow Johns Hopkins master’s recipients Julie Buisson and Mark Verdecia, is searching for a rooftop with more than 20,000 square feet to build on in Baltimore.
His vertical farming system uses hydroponics, delivering nutrients to crops through water. No soil is involved.
“It’s very precise and resource-efficient,” Reidy said. “We use about 80 percent less water and no pesticide. With hydroponics, we take that out of the equation.”
He said he came to Johns Hopkins after telling the university about his agricultural goals and after spending a summer working on a an organic farm in Vermont where his duties ran the gamut from chicken raising to greenhouse work.
He’d been cooking since he “could hold a spatula” and credits his eureka moment to reading “The Vertical Farm,” a book by microbiologist Dickson Despommier.
His book proposes a future where crops are grown in hermetically sealed skyscrapers that protect crops from harmful weather, conserve resources and improve yields.
“It requires many different multidisciplinary minds to come together,” Reidy said. “Growing food in a city. When you hear that, it sounds crazy.”
So, why aren’t more people doing this?
The up-front cost, he said. The greenhouse will cost between $2 million and $5 million to build.
So, for now, Urban Pastoral is starting smaller with shipping container greenhouses that can be customized for individual clients such as restaurants.
“We configure the greenhouse to grow exactly what you want for your restaurant,” he said. “We guarantee the prices and we ship it to you on a weekly basis.”
The urban location allows Urban Pastoral to save on the shipping costs usually incurred by commercial agriculture operations, allowing them to grow fresher food and sell at comparable if not cheaper prices, Reidy said.
Urban Pastoral has already cemented partnerships with Bon Appétit Management Co., which sells food to area colleges including Johns Hopkins, and the Baltimore Food Hub, currently under construction.
The nonprofit also recently scored about $95,000 in grants from various groups including The Abell Foundation and Johns Hopkins, Reidy said.
“This industry is not a trend. It is growing by the year, and it’s a multi-billion industry without a doubt,” he said. “I’m part of a global movement. I’m a small piece of it. … I hope and I know there will be many more people like me.”