What’s It Like to Be a Vertical Farmer?

As the Shift Manager for Farm.One’s Tribeca farm, Tom Rubino juggles early mornings, a fast pace, and a high attention to detail. Here’s how he does it.

You’ve probably seen enough videos and photos of vertical farms: Racks and racks, levels and levels within LED-lit warehouses, growing ‘perfect’ produce year-in, year-out. You might see a white-jacketed figure in the distance, tiny against the equipment. The focus is firmly on the technology, not the people.

What’s more, it’s especially hard to find out what it’s really like to work on an indoor farm, because many companies are extremely secretive — hardly letting anyone past their air-curtained doors.

But don’t let that fool you. Like any other business, urban farms live or die on their people. And real people work in them, like Tom.

Farm.One is kind of unusual in the world of vertical farms. Most grow just a few crops — normally bulk salad greens. Instead, we grow hundreds of rare herbs, edible flowers and micros (581 at last count) for chefs in some of the best restaurants in New York. Often our product is the last thing a chef puts on the plate, and the first thing a customer sees.

Our leaves and flowers, on a dish by Ronny Emborg for Atera

Our farms are very small (Tribeca is just over 1,200 square feet, and our farm at the Institute of Culinary Education is around 300). But we use the latest LED lights and hydroponics to grow year-round in the heart of the city, giving us an outsized level of production for such a tiny space.

As Shift Manager for Farm.One’s new farm in Tribeca, Tom oversees all day-to-day operations from seed to harvest. The buck stops with Tom.

A Love of Food & Farming

“I spent five months on a family farm in Sicily — and it was the time of my life. It was a huge farm, over 500 acres, growing wheat, almonds, olives, grapes and more—kind of the opposite to this! I’d also done a lot of gardening at my house, starting with a small window box and progressing to a 10x20' planter on the roof, growing common herbs.

“I just feel very at peace when I’m around plants.

“It makes me very happy to see a plant through from germination to the point you harvest it — it’s real satisfaction. And to see someone using it in a dish is even better.

Early Mornings

At Farm.One, mornings start early — often around 6:30am—as we harvest everything on the day of delivery. Tom likes to get a head start.

“I open up the farm early. This is my chance to get ahead of the day, prepping everything for the beginning of people‘s shifts.

“I’ll have a look at the harvest, and print out the harvest tickets [Farm.One uses our own ticketing system, a little bit like a restaurant] — if there’s anything I think one person will harvest better than someone else, faster than someone else, I’ll assign them that ticket.

Running two farms 15 minutes walk from each other is … interesting, logistically. Tom has to stay on top of this, and any special instructions.

“I’ll have a look at what we need from ICE versus here. I’ll try to get ahead of the harvest, looking at what customers need what, and any special packing or cutting requirements ahead of time before it gets busy. In my mind the harvest is finalized at 8am — ready for everyone to come in.

Thai Red Stem Basil

Unlike most farms, Farm.One plants seeds almost every day of the week — so that our customers get the perfect leaf size for their product.

For example, many microgreens are grown for just 12 or 14 days, meaning that even one day off can mean a product isn’t right.

This means every day has a mixture of planting, transplanting and harvesting, as well as general farm maintenance tasks.

“I’ll look at the planting schedule too — so that I know at what point during the harvest I can peel people off the harvest and onto planting so that we get everything done in time.

“We usually have a big planting scheduled. The key is getting everything prepped—seeds, medium, everything before the full effort starts. We’ll have Farm Hands coming in at different times — either starting their shift or from ICE, so it’s key to be ready. I’m constantly corresponding with our Head of Operations if we are short on something or there are last-minute changes.

“When I get the planting underway, I can think about what I need to do, either re-allocating space in the system, receiving consumables.

“On a busy day, there are also unexpected things happening. New orders, problems with a particular crop. Being able to jump in and troubleshoot problems, being flexible is important.

Important qualities

Tom talks through some of the essential traits you need to succeed on a busy indoor farm.

“Anticipation—you’re not always going to know before there is a problem, but you need to think about what you might do if there is one, and be ready for different things to happen. You want to see a few moves ahead and be ready for a variety of scenarios.

“It’s a rush on busy days. When everything goes smoothly, you can be going through huge quantities of tickets and look back at the end of the shift to see a lot of product done, and that’s very rewarding. But that only happens if you’re thinking in advance.

“We’re always looking for new ways to improve, and figuring out the most efficient ways to do things. Not necessarily the fastest, but the correct way.

Food adventures

“I grew up in a family where eating was a huge business. We start Thanksgiving at around 11:30 in the morning, and have like a nine-course meal! A constant steady stream of food throughout the day. Some of my best memories from my childhood are from waking up and smelling my mom’s garlic for breakfast. Eating is a very social thing, it’s about enjoyment, very much about pleasure and having a good time.

I’ll often tell a waiter when I go into a restaurant ‘We’re going to be here a while, and we’re going to have fun!’.

“I like all different cuisines, and my fiancée and I get a lot of pleasure out of it.

What’s it like visiting a restaurant where you’ve grown the product yourself?

Since starting at Farm.One, Tom has visited our customers like Daniel, Butter, Mission Chinese Food and Le Turtle.

“That is a lot of fun! The first thing I ever ate in a restaurant from this farm was nasturtium, when I was at Butter. My girlfriend ate most of it while I was texting David (Farm.One’s Head Horticulturalist) about it! The second was Le Turtle — and that’s where we got the full experience; Chef Victor hit us with a lot of things that we grow. He did it on purpose, I know!

“I try everything growing often on the farm so I know how it’s doing, but one of the plants I tasted rarely before was Bull’s Blood. On that occasion at Le Turtle it stood out though, because we had had a nightmare with a lot of failed batches of that product — getting just two trays-worth out of 6 planted trays by painstakingly picking through it for what felt like hours. So when I saw it on a dish at Le Turtle I had to laugh— that was definitely the fruits of my labor! It tasted that much better.

What’s the best part of the job?

“It’s a lot of fun to visit restaurants, but it’s even better to hear from Sales the compliments we’ve had from chefs. I take a lot of pleasure from giving chefs the best product possible. So when I hear back from chefs, it gives me a huge amount of satisfaction.

Any advice for wannabe urban farmers?

“Patience and persistence. Despite all the work we put in to systematize and automate, at the ground level it’s a very exact science.

“The smallest of details can throw off germination and maturation of any plant. A tray of Dragon’s Tongue might dry out if you have a slightly elevated side of a tray. Flood height might vary. New trays don’t always fit perfectly with the old trays. Even a few millimeters can make a difference sometimes.

“Attention to detail is vital. I’m meticulous. It’s the only way you can have success with this kind of farm. Constantly adjusting and improving as a farmer and pushing that back to the business is essential.

“I love the challenge and I enjoy the work. I don’t mind the extra effort. You have to have a love for it, and an ability to learn from your mistakes.

Find out more about our farming team and how they work with the overview video below, narrated by Head of Operations, Dana.

Inspired? You can now own a piece of Farm.One at http://farm.one/invest.