Baltimore farm-in-a-box a potential catalyst in urban revitalization

Leafy greens grow profusely at the tiny East Baltimore farm, but not in parallel rows in the ground. They pop out of vertical white troughs that hang from a metal ceiling.

Light-emitting diodes glow 18 hours a day, providing the equivalent of full sunshine. Electronic sensors gauge temperature, pH levels and the nutritional needs of plants, driving automatic adjustments to the heat, water and food they are provided.

This retrofitted ex-shipping container in a parking lot in Broadway East is hardly your grandfather’s farm. And in his skinny jeans, black sneakers and recycled-materials T-shirt, J.J. Reidy will remind no one of the guy with the pitchfork and overalls in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

Reidy, 29, is the founder and CEO of Urban Pastoral Collective, a two-year-old business with a dual mission: to produce and sell fresh, whole foods in an urban setting and to help leverage the value of such foods into a movement that transforms the way Americans live and interact in cities.

Reidy and his business partner, Christian de Paco, 27, are staking their mission’s “grand vision” on a core belief: that food is not merely a basic human need; it’s also a powerful social connector and, if handled properly, a potent driver of change.

“[Christian] and I have worked around the world — in Africa, in South America and elsewhere — and food brings people together more than anything we’ve experienced,” Reidy says. “From Ethiopia to Baltimore, food is the common connector that can take blighted neighborhoods and bring them to life.”

It’s a next-generation approach that blends the goals of a nonprofit with the aims and ammunition of a for-profit business.

Whether the model will work is anyone’s guess. But some signs are promising.

The farming unit fills just 320 square feet but generates as much produce as a one-acre farm. The company has started a vegetarian restaurant at R House, a food hall in Remington, and plans to open another in the Baltimore Food Hub, the socially conscious culinary center now under construction in an old East Baltimore pumping station.

And Urban Pastoral has expanded its staff in the past year from two to 19.

Reidy and De Paco continue to experiment with tactics and crunching numbers to test their ideas’ viability. What they have found so far is ambiguous.

The data suggests it will be hard for entrepreneurs to make a going concern of urban produce farms as long as they stick to traditional business models.

But if they collaborate with like-minded partners, and position their different businesses — the farm and the restaurants — less as independent entities than as units within a larger ecosystem, there’s hope for growth all around.

Darius Graham, who has worked with the partners as director of the Social Innovation Lab at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, cautions that there are no guarantees. But he believes the model is likely to work — and not just in the sense of turning profits.

“In the long run, I think Urban Pastoral will be a great success story of a Baltimore startup that created jobs and opportunity in our city and also made a lasting impact,” Graham says. “Whether by employing residents at their own food businesses or helping young people learn about urban agriculture, there’s so much potential and need for this company and others like it that want to make an impact.”

Reidy, with his swept-back hair, toothy smile and ease with the language of idealistic enterprise, has the aura of a young Kennedy as he shows a visitor the firm’s farm-in-a-box, a trailer-like steel container called Box/UP that cost $80,000 to buy and retrofit, and that now generates 80 pounds of lettuce and Thai basil per week.

It’s the engine of a project that was born in 2013, when Reidy, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., met De Paco, a Naval Academy graduate from Costa Rica, when both were MBA students at the Johns Hopkins business school.

Reidy had a head start. He grew up in a family that loved food, traveled widely and did plenty of volunteer work.

As a child, Reidy says, he saw how people in Western European countries socialized around cooking and dining — and noticed in Central America the “shocking disparities” between rich and poor.

A post-college job with an e-commerce startup in Washington taught Reidy the importance of agility and adaptability in modern business, he says. He kept the lessons in mind during a four-month stint at a Vermont farm collective.

What came into focus was a vision for a business centered on forward-thinking agriculture that could unify people, enrich lives and even address societal ills.

De Paco, a marine engineer with a knack for making things happen, signed on. They brought their ideas to the Social Innovation Lab, a program that supports 10 social-entrepreneurial projects a year.

The lab provided funding, access to mentors, connections to potential funders, and a community of entrepreneurs to learn from and grow with, and the pair “shamelessly worked on our company in all our classes,” Reidy says.

By the time they graduated in 2015, Urban Pastoral had established partnerships with two community-minded nonprofits in Baltimore in the Abell Foundation and Humanim, a workforce- development organization.

Humanim offered space at their headquarters, the renovated American Brewery building on North Gay Street in one of East Baltimore’s most blighted neighborhoods.

Box/UP sits in the fenced-in parking lot behind the building, a white and plant-green reminder of the nonprofit’s catchphrase: Human Purpose. Human Impact.

“It’s great to have them here for a lot of reasons,” senior vice president and chief business officer Cindy Plavier-Truitt says. “One is the access to food in this community — yet another sign that entrepreneurial ventures can thrive, can exist, and want to be here in East Baltimore.”

The idea of vertical farming — the use of “controlled-environment agriculture” in stacked or upright spaces in urban areas — has been around for more than a century.

It wasn’t brought to popular attention, though, until 1999, when the Columbia University ecologist Dickson Despommier wrote of its potential to increase the efficiency of food production, untether the process from the vicissitudes of weather, and generate jobs.

Today it’s a $6 billion industry, with groups in places as far afield as Canada, South Africa, Japan and California setting up units of varying shapes and sizes in a range of settings.

Reidy and company saw the technology as a great fit for Baltimore, with its low cost of living, thousands of abandoned homes, numberless underutilized garages, basements and rooftops and thriving nonprofit community.

For all the field’s allure, though, little data existed on the financial feasibility of the practice. Urban Pastoral set out to change that.

During the company’s first few months, Reidy says, he and De Paco made some interesting discoveries.

Even at their rapid production rate, they found, the high costs of technology and real estate — and competition from government-backed industrial growers who can keep their prices far lower — meant a unit like theirs couldn’t turn a profit by traditional standards.

What’s more, because precision farming by its very nature reduces the need for labor, they were able to hire just one employee.

They pivoted to a different model through collaboration with friends.

Urban Pastoral connected with Seawall Development, the socially conscious real estate firm behind R House, the marketplace of restaurant stalls in the old Anderson Body Shop building where cutting-edge restaurateurs were joining forces to minimize risk and maximize creativity.

Piggybacking on the food hall’s appeal as a destination, Urban Pastoral began marketing its own produce in processed form — as fresh juices and in dishes — at Stall 11.

The model generates enough profit in a 330-square-foot space to employ 17 people and send a revenue stream back to the farm, establishing a cycle of growing value.

The “symbiotic” approach, as Reidy calls it, conjures the prospect of an ag business that functions as a cell within an ecosystem, drawing energy from parallel enterprises, yet feeding more back into the system — as a good farmer might replenish the soil.

Count Thibault Manekin, a Seawall partner, as a fan.

“The UP team leads with purpose, which isn’t very common for a for-profit business,” Manekin says. “They exist not to cook great food. They exist so that cooking and sourcing great food will make our city a better place by building a localized food economy.”

China Boak Terrell is the CEO of American Communities Trust, the community development organization behind the Baltimore Food Hub. The $23.5 million enterprise is now unfolding on a 3.5-acre site visible from the brewery.

She made Urban Pastoral a partner because its restaurant — still in the planning stages as Reidy seeks input from neighbors — will create jobs, a bustling presence at night, and a destination low-income residents can get to without owning a car.

“What they want to put at the site makes sense for what Central-East Baltimore needs,” Boak Terrell says.

In a typical week, Reidy might get together with representatives of other Baltimore urban farms (all of them outdoors), bring a class of students or a gaggle of legislators through, or help the team prepare for yet another demonstration of their operations.

It’s all part of the cycle of business as he and his partners see it — of using agriculture to grow more than just profits.

He pauses to check a dosage unit, making sure it’s pumping the right nutrients to the right plants at the right time.

“It’s all about adding value,” he says.

An earlier version of this article misstated the organization of which the Social Innovation Lab is a part. It is a part of Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°