Last week, staff at Brooke Point High School in Stafford County enjoyed a salad of butterhead and romaine lettuces with cucumbers, tomatoes and made-from-scratch dressing, all prepared by the school’s culinary arts students.
“It was honestly the best lettuce I’ve ever had in my life,” said Brooke Point Principal Tim Roberts. “You could tell how fresh it was.”
The greens were fresh because they had been harvested the day before from the vertical farm installed at the end of March by Babylon Micro-Farms, a Richmond-based company that designs and builds smart indoor vertical farming systems.
Graham Smith, Babylon’s co-founder and chief technology officer, said the company differs from others in the hydroponic or vertical-gardening industry because it markets directly to the consumer, rather than to large-scale operations.
“We really try to teach the consumer about the food they eat, the food they are literally growing feet from their table,” he said.
The company’s goal is to make hydroponic gardening—or growing plants without soil—accessible to the average person by automating as much of the process as possible.
“There are a lot of knowledge barriers to run a hydroponic farm,” Smith said. “You need to know irrigation, what lighting schedule to use, nutrition composition, pH-levels and stuff like that.
“To be able to run these farms on site by [people] who aren’t experts, you have to automate pretty much all of it,” he continued. “Our customer basically gets notifications on when they need to do certain things and we kind of guide you through the whole process.”
Babylon’s 15-square-foot modular microfarms—which are optimized for leafy greens, herbs and edible flowers—can grow as much produce as 2,000 square feet of outdoor farmland.
The farms also have a smaller environmental foot print than outdoor farms, using no pesticides and 95 percent less water and fertilizer—and since the customer is growing food on site, there are no transportation costs or packaging waste.
The company, which Smith and Alexander Olesen founded as students studying social entrepreneurship at the University of Virginia in 2017, has installed its refrigerator-sized microfarms in restaurants, senior living communities, colleges and resorts, and is looking to expand into education.
Brooke Point is the first public school to purchase a Babylon microfarm. “We’re so excited about that installation,” Smith said.
Roberts learned about Babylon when the company reached out to him for a reference for a former Brooke Point staff member who was applying for a job there.
He searched the company online and watched a video about how culinary arts students at a Henrico charter school were using a Babylon microfarm.
“I thought, Oh, this is cool—this would be pretty great for our kids,” Roberts said.
He was intrigued by the idea that the microfarm could provide opportunities to students in four different disciplines: culinary arts, marketing, instructional technology and environmental studies.
“We always want the kids to see how they can impact society and how technology can impact society and sustainability,” Roberts said.
He discussed his idea with Brooke Point’s culinary arts teacher Stephanie Delcore, as well as IT and computer teacher Mike Sokoly, business teacher Trenna Mason and IB environment teacher Ginger Beach.
“They were all super excited,” he said.
Because the purchase would be over $5,000, the school went through the state’s request-for-proposals process and entered into a contract with Babylon, which Roberts said other school divisions can jump on.
The vertical farm was installed at Brooke Point on March 29 and learning opportunities began right away, Roberts said.
IT students get to see a practical application of their skills.
“These kids know how to code, but to think that someone wrote a code to read a sensor that a root is touching that lets it know it needs nutrients, and it sends nutrients to a plant to create a more plentiful crop which reduces emissions and water usage and everything else—it blows their minds,” Roberts said.
Environmental studies students get to see an example of a product that was designed to solve sustainability challenges.
Marketing students will enjoy the business opportunities presented by $500 worth of produce each month and culinary arts students get the challenge of developing creative uses for a variety of microgreens and herbs.
The Brooke Point vertical garden is growing Lolla Rossa lettuce, micro-basil and micro-arugula.
“Every two weeks, we’ll be harvesting something else,” Roberts said. “It does produce a lot and [culinary arts students] will have to figure out, ‘What kind of menu can I develop to use this up?’ ”
Babylon is hoping to expand its program across school systems in Virginia.
“There are a lot of opportunities to build [the farms] into the curriculum and get students excited about not only the high quality of the food but also engineering, automation, robotics and manufacturing,” Smith said.