In-house farm-to-table: How hydroponics is changing the way we eat

Published November 14, 2021, 9:23 AM

by Carol RH Malasig

Indoor farming was something I first encountered in Berlin back in 2017. As only the freshest regional ingredients—preferably foraged in a nearby forest—became the trend for most Michelin-starred joints in Europe, it was only a matter of time technology entered the picture. Why leave it to circumstance and the whims of the atmosphere? What if you can grow your own produce and herbs without any risks and with climate that you can control?

JACK’S CHOICE Magic Beans by Helm Manila’s Chef Josh Boutwood topped with Hyperlocal Farms’ Chervil Parsley. This dish was part of his June menu

Indoor farms at restaurants

Indoor farms also went from being suppliers within the city to being inside restaurants.

It became rather trendy to have their own, small, tech-powered farms where their customers could see their food grow. That purple light emanating from a glass-walled, industrial-looking fridge was such a come-on. It signaled to people that the chef was modern and that they were getting the freshest produce possible. It was everything Berliners wanted in their restaurants, especially with the food industry becoming more and more focused on greens rather than meat.

Israeli chef Meir Adoni, known for his restaurants in his home country and New York, opened his first, contemporary dining spot in Berlin called Layla in 2019. Of course, it had a couple of its own indoor farms and for Adoni’s kind of cooking, it definitely made sense. “Herbs are an integral part of Middle Eastern cuisine,” he said. “We use between 20 and 30 per dish.”

COOL GREEN The indoor farm in Meir Adoni’s restaurant called Layla, a common sight in some of Berlin’s restaurants

Looking straight out of a sci-fi movie, it was truly one of the freshest ways you could source your ingredients within a big city like Berlin. Kitchen assistants, sometimes even the chef himself, would pop on over to their indoor farms, crack the door open, and pluck a couple of basil leaves or cherry tomatoes before walking back to their open kitchen where their ‘harvest’ would be put to good use. It’s literally farm-to-table in the 21st century.

A week or so later, I saw the same technology in Edeka, one of the leading supermarket chains in Germany. Its stores were literally growing herbs to sell and the customers got first dibs.

“Imagine having it in Manila,” I remember telling my husband that night. “You can make sure you’re having organic produce without worrying over pests and even typhoons.”

Hydroponics in the Philippines

Turns out, we already do. Indoor farms such as the ones in Berlin use hydroponics, a way of farming developed by scientists where plants can be grown in nutrient-rich water rather than soil. Not only does it save precious space in farmlands, but it also conserves water. Hyperlocal Farms is doing exactly this kind of farming in the Philippines.

“Hyperlocal Farms uses hydroponics and an indoor climate control system in order to optimize all the conditions for the crops we grow,” said co-founder and head of business Cris Cu. “In our 40-foot container, we can fit up to an acre worth of crops and we efficiently utilize resources like water to ensure less wastage.”

RAINFALL MIMICRY Hydroponics saves space and water

Started by Cu and her husband Tristan just three years ago, Hyperlocal Farms is about answering the needs of most Filipino consumers when it comes to variety and food security. “We both have shared a background of living internationally and, moving back to Manila, we felt the stark difference in quality and varieties we could get,” Cu said. “Our vision has always been to improve the food security in this country and to be able to provide high-quality nutritious crops year-round.”

Currently, they grow two types of lettuce, leafy greens like kale, as well as herbs. These are mostly supplied to restaurants and cafés all over the Metro like Paul, Gallery by Chele, and more. In fact, if you had a salad at Wildflour recently, you’ve already had some of Hyperlocal Farms’ greens.

In this year’s Anuga, the world’s biggest food fair held in Köln, it’s already evident that the shift to plant-based food has gone mainstream. From plant-based schnitzel to Speculoos-flavored rice cakes and even cultivated chicken fat, food innovation is definitely looking toward reducing meat consumption and going, well, green.

Going green

The demand worldwide is only bound to get higher. In the past year, even during the pandemic, more and more restaurants in Manila have also started to introduce plant-based options, proving that there really is a market for a healthier diet that’s also kinder to the environment.

GREENER BY THE DOZEN Hyperlocal Farms recently experimented with growing Heirloom Argentata Chard. Native to Italy, it is often favored by chefs for its buttery flavor

As early as now, Cu and her team are already experiencing growth and more demand. “We have definitely been growing here in the Philippines,” she said. “We are currently working to launch our second indoor farm early next year and with the ambition to expand our offering beyond our current premium lettuces.”

With traditional farming often at the mercy of typhoons, Cu sees hydroponics as a way to improve food security while answering a growing demand. With their indoor farm, they are able to supply produce all year round while keeping their prices stable.

As hydroponics becomes a more viable option for food businesses, it’s only a matter of time until it becomes more accessible to consumers. Hyperlocal Farms even delivers to individuals who are able to reserve their slots via their Instagram (@hyperlocalfarms). With our new generation of city farmers, I guess it’s safe to say that we’re also taking one step closer to having better food security.