Those who consider themselves “locavores” in Brookline can delight in what two local farmers are doing, or rather, what they’re not doing.
What they are doing is harvesting a whole host of fresh leafy greens every week—up to 15 different kinds of lettuce and a variety of chard, kale, arugula, basil, and more—from the old abandoned garage on Waldo Street near Coolidge Corner.
But there is no soil, and no sun! Instead, Bobby Zuker and Chris Mutty of Green Line Growers go to work inside three used shipping containers no bigger than a college dorm hallway. These freight farms—endearingly named Fenway, Kenmore, and Charlie—house an operation and a method of farming called hydroponics, or soil-less farming—a technique that is slowly gaining traction among urban farmers.
“We can do about a thousand heads of lettuce a week and we use between 30 and 40 half-bushel boxes per container,” says Zuker, referring to one of the freights that grows specifically lettuce.
The seeds are planted in peat moss trays, also called “humidity domes,” which optimize temperature and humidity. They will spend about a week germinating. Then the sprouts are moved up and nourished with the regular water solution. After three weeks, they’re ready to be transported to the vertically-hanging towers that line the sides of the freight. Blue and red LED light is emitted through tiny bulbs built into the towers to promote photosynthesis and CO2 absorption. Turning on the lights triggers the nutrient-rich water to trickle down into the pods.
“Each plant has specific nutrient needs,” says Zuker. “The kale and chard want different nutrients from the lettuce,”
The sunless environment is carefully controlled. Everything from temperature, humidity, CO2 levels, pH levels, and the nutrients themselves are engineered to cater to each plant’s specific needs. It makes for a lot of work.
“The challenge is to keep the temperature where it needs to be for the plants to taste the best,” says Zuker. “Keeping the best quality and the best taste is important to us.”
Of course, the product itself is safe and pesticide-free. The plants are harvested with the roots still on and can maintain freshness for weeks after they’ve been picked. This means less waste, less wilting, more preservation, which the restaurants like.
Zuker and Mutty typically harvest on Tuesdays and Fridays and then deliver to the stores. They’re in the process of building relationships with businesses interested in their produce and have built a number of successful partnerships with locally-inspired kitchens across Brookline and elsewhere. Rifrullo Cafe and The Fireplace are among their loyal customers.
“That’s definitely one of the best parts of this job, getting to collaborate with the chefs and share ideas,” says Mutty.
“Sometimes the restaurants want something unique that they can’t get anywhere else, or that they can’t get local and fresh,” says Zuker. “So we’re willing to work with them and devote a few of our towers to grow something that they’re looking for. That’s just one advantages that we have.
The process of harvesting the greens, packaging them, and delivering them to businesses can take as little as an hour. Before they know it, diners are munching on salads that only hours prior were soaking up nutrients. You can’t get much better than that.
Mutty and Zuker purchased the freights from a company in South Boston called Freight Farms. The containers come fully equipped with all of the necessary technology. They planted their first seed just after Christmas and have been harvesting for about six weeks.
Zuker expects to move over to fruits soon. Eggplants, cucumbers, strawberries, and tomatoes are already in the making.
“It’s definitely a full-time job just being on the farm” says Mutty. “Then there’s the selling, servicing accounts, marketing and everything else. But I’m here because it’s awesome and so much fun.”