When Charlottesville’s Silk Mills building opened in 1895, it brought a new manufacturing business to a local economy that still was based upon agriculture. Today, the building on Harris Street houses a team of “farmers” who build circuit boards and write code as they tend to their crops. Another tenant, Babylon Micro-Farms, hopes to bring the technology used by large-scale urban farms to small businesses and individual consumers. “We want to make advanced, controlled agriculture accessible to more people,” said Alexander Olesen, Babylon Micro-Farms co-founder.
Since its creation in 2017, Babylon has installed automated hydroponic systems at several Charlottesville eateries, including Corner Juice and Yoga, Three Notch’d Craft Brewery and Kitchen and the University of Virginia’s Observatory Hill dining hall. The company currently is finishing its most complex project to date inside the Boar’s Head Resort’s Trout House. Dale Ford, Boar’s Head’s executive chef, said he expects the hydroponic farm to produce 300 heads of lettuce each week — enough for all of the resort’s dining locations. “Putting together a small urban farm inside what we consider to be a legendary, iconic building for our property was a great combination,” Ford said. “The thought that we could grow produce from an heirloom seed and track the analytics and data from germination to harvest and tell the story of that food to our guest — that is pretty special.” Olesen and co-founder Graham Smith built their first micro-farm for a social entrepreneurship course at UVa. That wooden, pool table-sized prototype has given rise to tall, transparent setups that can be precisely programmed to provide water and nutrients to multiple crop varieties at once. Will Graham, Babylon’s director of marketing and sales, said the company ships pre-seeded trays and programs the micro-farms in advance to make indoor farming a “plug-and-play” experience for its clients.
Many other companies are trying to capitalize on the efficiency and environmental sustainability of hydroponics. A handful of urban farming startups have attracted enormous investments this year. BrightFarms, which operates a 250,000-square-foot greenhouse in Culpeper County, raised a $55 million Series D investment round in June. Gotham Greens, based in New York and Chicago, raised $29 million in an investment round this past summer. Beanstalk, another indoor farming startup founded by UVa graduates, participated in the Y Combinator accelerator program this year. While Beanstalk hopes to disrupt the wholesale market for produce, Babylon Micro-Farms is targeting individual restaurants and health-conscious consumers. The company is scheduled to unveil a residential model of its micro-farm in December, with an estimated starting cost of $3,500. “When we looked at the industry, we saw that it was confined to massive commercial industrial operations and small DIY kits,” Olesen said. “That doesn’t make any sense, and it reflects the problems of the larger agricultural system.” Babylon Micro-Farms soon will sell its own produce at local farmers markets and groceries. It has donated greens to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. “We grow hundreds of crops and experiment with all sorts of rare varieties and herbs that you can’t get in Charlottesville,” Olesen said. “If we say it’s that easy, why wouldn’t we be doing it ourselves?”