Things are up in the air for vertical farming newcomer Cory Mahony — and that’s exactly how he likes it. Owner of newly minted Urban Fields Agriculture (UFA), Mahony launched the business after reading a 2017 Forbes magazine article on vertical produce farming. He stashed away his bartending earnings, pored over countess articles on the topic and experimented. “I saved a bunch of money to get started and meanwhile, drove my mother nuts trying to grow different things in the house,” he says.
Mahony uses hydroponic deep-water culture, which suspends plants’ roots in a solution of nutrient-rich, oxygenated water. The young entrepreneur is on the cutting edge of farming. And because UFA’s growing happens indoors, the need for pesticides is minimal, the changing climate has little to no effect on yields so that they are higher, and the environment is spared transportation costs since vertical farms can operate in the middle of a busy metropolis.
“The plants grow 50% faster and use 90% less water,” Mahony says. “It’s a short grow cycle; every single week I have a fresh harvest.” His first one was just six weeks ago.
UFA’s current operation covers about 400 square feet in a 1,000-foot area. Mahony’s number one crop is basil, which he’s been selling to several local restaurants. Two local greengrocers have just agreed to buy his produce as well. Lately, he’s been dabbling with edible Asian flowers, which are used for garnish in restaurants and in feed for exotic birds.
Mahony uses only natural ingredients and processes at UFA (he cannot label his produce as organic since that designation is currently reserved for soil-based farms). He hopes for a change in these rules, but in the meantime, he’s applying for a Good Agricultural Practices certification from the USDA, an audit program through which producers can demonstrate compliance with food-safety requirements.
Mahony’s business acumen is certainly certified: According to Allied Market Research, the global vertical farming market — a concept that a Forbes reporter called “science fiction” less than three years ago — is expected to reach $12.77 billion by 2026.
And, although Mahony now relies on local restaurant contacts for new business leads, he’s got his eye on the Manhattan produce market. “I’ve got the biggest market in the world right in my backyard,” the entrepreneur says.