Urban agriculture is taking local food to the next level. Innovation hubs like AgTech X are leading the way.
AgTech X builds entrepreneurial communities to activate sustainable food & agriculture innovation. They work closely with their partner company Agritecture, founded by Henry Gordon-Smith. At their co-working lab in Brooklyn, they host classes, workshops, & panel discussions; foster learning and collaboration for new entrants in the industry; and serve as an early-stage incubator for entrepreneurs and startups. They work with companies like NexLoop that builds retrofits on buildings for urban agriculture that collect fog and rain for use in urban agriculture irrigation systems. Ricky Stevens, Founder of AgTech X sat down with Kyle to discuss the future of agriculture and food in urban communities.
Kyle Calian: Would you describe your path to what you're working on now? How'd you get started?
Ricky Stephens: My background is in digital marketing and sales technology. I started my career with a company called Red Ventures. That was a really foundational experience for me, as I started considering a more entrepreneurial path. We were tasked with building out their first international office in Sao Paulo.
Before that, I was really passionate about food. I never really knew what that looked like outside of the culinary world and, ultimately, I was deterred by the kind of bureaucratic nature of kitchen life.
As I was leaving Brazil, I started researching the innovation going on around the food and agriculture system in New York. I'm from New York originally, so I wanted to move back here. The more I researched what was wrong with the food system, the more I started discovering that so much of it is traced back to how we grow food in the first place. Consumer transparency trends were also interesting.
Over my last three months in Brazil, I developed this huge spreadsheet of companies and people in New York doing interesting things. I was so excited about how large that list had gotten that I felt ready to move back here without a job, get into the space and start networking. I met a ton of people, one of those people is my business partner, Henry Gordon Smith.
I was really attracted to and inspired by Henry, because he had built two impactful companies early into his career — one a blog called agritecture.com, and the other a consulting company, Blue Planet Consulting. Now, he's merged the two under the Agritecture brand.
I think Henry is someone who's considered a global thought leader in the urban agriculture space. And yet, he'll still make time to meet with strangers who message him on LinkedIn. He'll still teach workshops and classes. He makes himself really accessible, which is an important trait I was looking for in working with or for someone.
We started AgTech X because we felt like there was a gap between the young professionals and millenials with a curiosity and enthusiasm for urban farming and the people that were actually able to hire Agritecture, the consulting team, to help them start their project or urban farm.
AgTech X became about those pathways. How do we create more pathways for young people that want to get into sustainable food and agriculture as a new career?
So how does AgTech X help develop those pathways to sustainability?
We refer to ourselves, right now, as a community platform focused on two things: education and entrepreneurship. What we started discovering is that you have a lot of people who are just curious. Maybe they’ve read Michael Pollan or some articles on how environmentally damaging our current food system is, how it plays into social inequities as well. There's a lot of social justice focus that people come to this space in search of.
A lot of people have very little hands-on experience within the food or ag world, so we’re providing education in the form of classes, workshops and hands-on experiences, from working with sustainability-driven chefs who teach workshops about incorporating zero waste tactics to how to start a worm bin for composting.
We also help to fill a hole when it comes to entrepreneurs in New York City who know a ton about a particular subject but are still grinding it out, working 70 hours a week and are unable to market to a large audience. We can serve as a solution where we say, "We'll host. We'll sell the tickets. We'll find an audience. We'll do all the marketing. You just come here and present on that topic that you already know a ton about."
As people start coming here, they feel inspired by the projects or the class instructors. Naturally, they want to make a full career transition to this space. We’ve found that one way [to do that] is just by creating a space that allows for connection. We've already seen that lead to jobs.
Another piece is having more entrepre-neurial-minded individuals who want to start something on their own. We try to serve as a place that helps them get from ideation to the proof of concept stage, where they might be able to get into an incubator or an accelerator that already exists here in New York.
How does AgTech X facilitate the growth of these new business ventures?
Right now, things move fairly organically. This is our 15th month of being in operation. The first six months or so, we were in a much smaller space. We put up a bunch of vertical farming systems, a couple desks, and we just said, "Show up, and we'll teach you about hydroponics."
So does your space function like most other shared workspaces?
When we first opened, we were like, anybody can come here. As long as you’re interested in urban agriculture, you’ll be a fit … except we didn’t have a kitchen, we had a really bootleg bathroom, we had nowhere to take calls. It didn’t function like a real coworking space. It had to be more purposeful.
About six months in, we shifted to more entrepreneurs or people starting companies or organizations. We don't have to hold their hands every day. They have an ongoing project and we can help by checking in with them once a week or once a month. And we can leverage the power of our community to really facilitate connections for them. A good example in the space today is C. Mike Lindsey at Nexloop who won the biomimicry design challenge last year. He has this product that he's trying to develop, a passive water-capture system. There are a lot of applications potentially for it, and it's hard to figure out which application they should focus on first.
That's something we could help solve, partly because of Henry's experience in the industry, and partly because we have relationships with farms in New York City that could use something like this and trial it.
So that's what we help do: Let's try to validate the idea that you have. Does it work better as a passive dehumidifier, or does it work better as a water-capture system that's creating water for a hydroponics system?
Who are some of the partners AgTech X engages with to help answer those kinds of questions?
We're members of the NYC Ag Collective, which is a consortium of urban farming-focused organizations in New York City. There's about 20 of them. About half are farms. The other half are technology companies or service providers or consultants. A couple groups we collaborate very closely with. Oko Farms is one. They're New York City's only outdoor aquaponics farm. The founder teaches an ongoing aquaponics workshop here.
Urbanstrong is like a green infrastructure consultancy, and Alan Burchell, who's the founder there, also teaches a class here. We've sent him some leads for green roofing projects. Another, Farm. One, we've worked fairly closely with.
One thing we're exploring as we work with chefs is farms (especially small farms and new farms) that are still developing their marketing. Oftentimes, they're left with surplus product. We try to help them utilize that surplus. We'll take it off their hands and create content and education.
Let's say Farm.One has some extra produce. They grow rare herbs and specialty greens and edible flowers, really interesting things that most people have never had before. I love to use them as an example. By bringing agriculture into the city, they're opening consumers' minds to what plant-based flavors can taste like. It doesn't have to be the five lettuce variations that you find at a supermarket. The plant kingdom is vast and amazing and diverse, and we know so little about it, as urban consumers especially.
We're doing an open house tomorrow where our chef-in-residence, Denzel, will be cooking up a bunch of different flavors. He'll incorporate their microgreens. Now, Farm. One has content that otherwise wouldn't have existed, and they minimized their food waste.
Cool. So is the stuff being grown in your space mostly educational?
Yeah, pretty much all educational. Sometimes, we'll harvest it and incorporate it in Denzel's cooking. But for the most part, it's used in our classes and workshops.
Who are some of your other influences?
Well, I have personal/business mentors and figures. And then I have people in the sustainable food and ag space that I really respect. Paul Hawken is a big one, because he's one of the early people bringing together environmentalism with business.
Exactly, yeah. Conscious capitalism has always been something I've been attracted to. When I started seeing the marriage of environmental impact with business and conscious capitalism, something awoke in me. And [Project] Drawdown, just as a resource, has been extremely influential.
We get a lot of people in here from the clean energy world, but sometimes people in that industry don't realize there’s other industries that are huge contributors to climate change. The average consumer, too, sometimes has a passive nature. But it’s like, what did you choose to eat today? That directly impacts.
Yeah, it’s the things you do every day. A lot of people don’t see their own energy consumption.
That's the beauty, I think, in food. It's just more tangible. And what I was bringing up before, specifically with Drawdown, is that they have those 100 most impactful solutions by 2050. When they categorized them, food was the most impactful sector. It was more impactful than energy.
And I think people just don't realize ...
What are some trends in the regenerative agriculture space that you’re most excited about?
Because I don't come from this industry, I've tried to observe a lot of what's going on. I’ve found it, I guess, a little scary that within the alternative agricultural world you have so much contention between people that are generally trying to do good things but going about it different ways.
There are incredible points of conflict between high-tech, urban farmers who use hydroponics to conserve land and water, and regenerative, soil-based rural farmers who are maybe thinking more holistically. Whereas high-tech, indoor farming is about avoiding some of the harm, regenerative farmers are about facing it head-on and coming up with new processes.
I think because of those different approaches and the different terms that get used, and maybe the flow of capital as well, there's so much tension. One thing that I've sort of made a personal mission, and that I hope to infuse in AgTech X, is to find a way to overcome that.
The bottom line is we need radical change. It's gonna happen. There's not gonna be a silver bullet. It has to happen across the board.
There's no reason for the disconnect and the tension. I think the media game, in some ways, and different mechanisms around hype and capital have deteriorated the message a little bit. AgTech X's mission will continue to be how do we bridge that gap. How can we talk about technology not just in the urban environment, but also that can be applied to regenerative, soil-based systems.
Let’s end with a few rapid-fire questions … Favorite plant?
For eating? I would say nasturtium.
I'd say passion fruit.
Good answer. Favorite vegetable? This is important information for your profile. [laughs]
I know, it's tough. I don't want to give a lame answer. I got to go with zucchini, just because you can do so much with it. It’s versatile.
Very. And, finally, favorite tree?
I'm gonna say Moringa.