John Lekic's Farmers & Chefs brand has always been about showcasing the freshest produce of the region through his food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurant. In recent months, the Poughkeepsie business›s name has become one step more literal. Amid pandemic-driven concerns about food safety, Lekic decided to start growing his own vegetables and herbs to cut down on the number of hands that handle ingredients before they reach diners. "It does set your mind at ease when you have control over your own food supply," Lekic says.
Short on space in the small parking lot behind the Farmers and Chefs building, which already holds the two food trucks, it occurred to Lekic that the only way to grow was up. So in March Lekic purchased a shipping container growing system from Israeli smart farming company, Vertical Field, that would allow him to grow produce on the walls of the container. The cutting-edge agricultural technology that is used to cultivate gardens on the sides of skyscrapers now powers the 20-foot container that is growing produce in the restaurant's parking lot.
Each of the long walls is divided into two, for a total of four "fields," which each offer approximately 85 square feet of growing space. These sections could split even further for a total of eight different "fields" if needed. "It gives you the freedom to harvest, if you wanted to, four or five times a week," says Lekic.
The vertical garden is climate controlled to allow for year-round growing, and everything from the 16-hour light cycle to when the plants get watered is automated. According to Vertical Fields, their technology requires 90 percent less water than traditional farming methods and grows produce with a longer shelf life, with no pesticide use required.
The availability of fresh greens and herbs is something of a luxury in upstate winters, and even now, as we approach summer, supply shocks caused by COVID-19 continue to disrupt produce availability in the US. "We have two food trucks and a 300-seat restaurant, and based on what we used last year, we can supply all our needs based [with the vertical gardens]," Lekic says.
Currently, he is growing kale, buttercrunch lettuce, thyme, arugula, dill, and sage for salads, garnishes, and even their herb-infused ice cream, with hopes of getting a second container exclusively for mushrooms in the future. "We want to expand. You know, once you start farming like this, it inspires you," he says.
Some of the greens that Lekic grows, like kale, are ready to harvest approximately two weeks after planting. "To a chef, it's just incredible, because you can grow your produce, and then harvest it and serve it on the same day," he says.
Abby Foster is a recent graduate of SUNY New Paltz.