Authors Posts by Dominique Farrell

Dominique Farrell


When Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” was first published in 1906, readers were outraged by the unsanitary food practices Sinclair depicted in the meatpacking industry. As a result of the book and subsequent public lobbying, the government passed The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act to protect Americans against adulterated food.

Today, more than one hundred years after its publication, is our food any safer? Over the past several years, books like “Fast Food Nation” and “Omnivore’s Dilemma” have revealed the darker side of the U.S. food industry. Poultry bathed in hyper-chlorinated water, genetically engineered (GE) crops and cows and sheep injected with steroids are legally sold in supermarkets nationwide.

But now, Americans are fighting back. They are embracing sustainable agriculture and countless new innovations like robotics, aquaponics and hyrdroponics systems, and soil monitors are making it possible for consumers to have more control over what they’re eating.

Community gardens

To promote healthy eating, community gardens have sprouted up in urban areas across the U.S. Cities like Cleveland and Buffalo, both of which have suffered significant post-industrial decline, have transformed vacant plots and unused land into urban farms. In Detroit, countless uninhabited lots and abandoned properties show the consequences of the decline in the city’s population over the past several years. To combat this problem, the organization, Keep Growing Detroit (KGD), now promotes urban agriculture on the city’s unused property. As a result, almost 20,000 citizens cultivate a garden or farm, and the city’s community gardens produce about 200 tons of fresh fruits and vegetables per year. In the Northwest, the organization, City Grown Seattle, promotes “food grown in your neighborhood” by transforming underutilized land into gardens. Landowners are encouraged to donate a portion of their land to City Grown and receive a share of fresh vegetables in return. In urban areas with no access to a grocery store, a community garden offers a healthy alternative to fast food restaurants or convenience stores.

Aquaponic and hyrdroponic gardens

For those living in colder climates, the first frost typically means the end of fresh fruits and vegetables for several months. Now, various companies have invented sustainable ways to grow fruits and vegetables indoors year-round using aquaponic (growing fish and plants together) or hydroponic (growing without soil) systems.

Boston-based start-up Grove Labs is bringing the garden inside with its bookshelf-sized aquaponic garden for homes. Four LED-lit boxes grow produce and an aquarium filled with fish provides fertilizer for the garden. Users can monitor and control the system from their smart phones. Another aquaponics system has been developed by Chicago-based, FarmedHere. Their indoor vertical gardens grow, harvest, package and deliver produce locally in the Midwest region. In New York City, where space is limited, Brooklyn-based Gotham Greens has taken its hydroponic greenhouses to the rooftops. Using sunlight, oxygen and CO2, the hydroponic system can grow more plants than on land and uses less water. The company Bright Farms cuts down on transport time and allows supermarkets to stock the freshest produce by designing, building and operating their hydroponic greenhouses at or near supermarkets. They currently operate farms in six states. Freight Farms’ Leafy Green Machine (LGM) sounds like some new raw juice, but it is actually a shipping container equipped with vertical hydroponics, LED lights and an automated climate control system so farmers can grow fruits and vegetables year-round.

Farming in the digital age

The days of farmers waking up at the crack of dawn may soon be a thing of the past. To increase productivity and improve sustainability in farming, new innovations have cropped up to help make the farmer’s job a little easier. For instance, dairy farmers have begun using robotic milkers to milk and feed their cows. The robots also monitor the amount of milk cows produce, the frequency of visits to the machine, how much each cow has eaten and the number of steps each cow has taken per day. Not only do the cows seem to like the robots, but the farmers also love the extra shuteye. Robotics are also invading the chicken coop. A Dutch robotics expert is developing a robot that collects chicken eggs. Although hens are supposed to lay eggs in nest boxes, up to 30 percent of eggs end up being laid on the floor. This attracts other chickens to do the same and the eggs laid on the ground cannot be sold at prime prices.

For those without a green thumb, the Edyn Garden Sensor is a Wi-Fi connected solar-powered soil monitor for your garden that will evaluate soil, recommend the best fertilizer and even suggest which vegetables will grow best, when to plant them and how often to water them. And to avoid over-and under-watering your garden, the Edyn Water Valve controls how much water your garden needs on any given day. Even during cloudy weather, the device stays online with a smart power algorithm. Planting an organic vegetable garden is easy with Smart Gardener’s free online app. It analyzes temperatures and growing conditions based on your location and suggests plants that will grow best in that climate. By providing a weekly “to do” list and keeping track of your progress, Smart Gardener helps ensure you have a good harvest.

Connecting farmers and consumers

A food product in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to supermarket. That’s a lot of fossil fuels burned. To arrive fresh, produce is often harvested when immature and/or processed to avoid spoiling. Fewer transport miles equals fewer emissions and food grown locally is fresher and healthier. Now, several start-ups are connecting farmers and consumers, thereby eliminating the middleman and those unnecessary food miles.

Montpelier, Vermont-based Farmers to You connects local farmers directly to Boston area customers. Customers shop online from “partner farmers and producers” and orders are delivered weekly to 16 Boston-area drop-off spots or to customer’s doors for an extra fee. For those who want to buy local and sustainable but not schlep to the farmers market, there’s Grub Market. Consumers shop from different local producers and Grub Market picks up their food and delivers the products to customers. Searching for a case of apples? FoodHub may be the place to look. Available in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Montana, Idaho and California, the FoodHub site connects buyers and sellers. It’s like a Craigslist for food. In the U.S., many crops go unharvested because of their appearance. Maryland based Hungry Harvest is trying to eliminate agricultural food waste by gleaning local produce and selling it at a competitive price to customers via a subscription service. For each pound of produce sold, Hungry Harvest donates a pound to those in need.

As Americans make smarter decisions about what they eat, will the agriculture industry and government take steps to improve the food industry? If some of these new farm tech companies have anything to do with it, they will. After all, I think we’ve had enough Spam and Steak-umms to last a lifetime.

If you’re involved in sustainable agriculture, we’d love to hear from you. Bon Appétech Conference will be a great way to connect with industry stakeholders, large brands and influential decision makers. More information available at

Post image copyright 2009 by Amy Youngs. See full license for use.

New roasting, farming and brewing methods ensure today's coffee is not your father's cuppa joe...

Not many people are aware that the Boston Tea Party was partly responsible for the U.S. becoming the coffee consuming country it is today. After American colonists threw crates of British tea in the harbor on December 16, 1773 to protest the Tea Act, it was considered unpatriotic to drink tea and coffee became the preferred beverage in the New World.

In 2014, 61 percent of Americans drank coffee daily. And 34 percent of those selected gourmet varieties to get their daily caffeine buzz. With the rise of the craft coffee movement, single-origin beans, terroir, aroma and tasting notes became part of the lexicon; coffee has become the new wine.

Approximately 25 million farmers and workers in more than 50 countries are involved in producing coffee today. Although coffee is one of the world’s most valuable commodities, the majority of farmers struggle to make a living. Production costs are high, the process is labor intensive and the market is unpredictable. And Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate. The recent coffee rust fungus (roya) in Central America and drought in Brazil have destroyed thousands of acres of coffee farms.

Coffee has evolved from first wave roasters like Folgers and Maxwell House who popularized freeze-dried and ground coffee to second wave roasters like Starbucks who introduced Americans to “specialty” coffee drinks to today’s third-wave roasters who brew artisan coffee. The third wave emphasizes the concept of terroir, the relationship with the farmer, the roasting process and finding the best brewing machines that highlight the bean’s taste characteristics. This certainly isn’t your grandmother’s coffee.

Sustainable grounds

Following the rise of the farm-to-table movement, biodynamic wines and organic chocolate, conscientious consumers are now demanding environmentally sustainable coffee. A certified “sustainable” coffee guarantees that farmers are given a fair price in exchange for meeting certain standards. To meet consumer demand, coffee roasters are increasingly looking to use only sustainable beans.

Companies like San Rafael, California’s Equator Coffee are based on that principle. More than 50 percent of their coffees are certified Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance or some combination of all three. Equator establishes relationships with growers, offers microcredit loans to their farmers, and their farm in Panama supports the local economy. Blue Bottle, Ritual Roasters and Four Barrel bypass Fair Trade and buy all their beans directly from farmers, also known as direct trade, allowing farmers to negotiate their own prices.


As consumers demand better quality coffee, new innovations and technology are not only changing the way we drink our coffee, but also the way it’s produced.

To achieve quality and consistency during roasting, many roasters are participating in an open source project from Google called Artisan Visual Scope. The software records, analyzes and controls roast profiles. An automated logging system tracks moisture levels and temperature changes on a sample roast.  After cupping, roasters can either apply the data to a production roast or adjust the variables to rework the taste profile.

Even high-quality, perfectly roasted artisanal beans are susceptible to imprecise brewing. This has spawned a market for single-cup brewing machines engineered to make the perfect cup of coffee every time. Seattle-based Coffee Equipment Company’s $11K Clover began appearing in several independent cafés back in 2006. Using Clover, baristas could control coffee strength, water temperature and brew time. Coffee geeks raved that the machine brought out coffee’s flavor characteristics. In 2008, Starbucks purchased Coffee Equipment Company, making it difficult for independent cafes to find replacement parts for their machines.

At half the price of the Clover is San Francisco-based Blossom Coffee’s Blossom One Brewer. Baristas can still control variables like coffee strength, temperature and brew time, but the Blossom One also maintains the same temperature throughout the entire brew process, removing bitterness from the coffee. Roasters can create and store recipes using the Blossom app and print corresponding QR codes on coffee bags. Alpha Dominche’s futuristic Steampunk 4.1 ($15K) features four brew chambers, called crucibles, each of which can brew a different coffee simultaneously. Baristas input recipes and can control variables via a touch screen.

Subscription services

Even if you don’t live near an artisan roaster, getting top quality coffee beans is only an Internet subscription away. Craft Coffee, for example, delivers customers a box containing beans from three different roasters or beans from one roaster. Their specialists blind taste 50 coffees each month and deem only three of high enough quality to make it into their boxes. Seattle-based Bean Box offers four bags of hand selected artisan coffee from premium independent roasters in Seattle, including roaster profiles, tasting notes and brew guide. Bean Genius selects a 12-ounce bag of coffee for subscribers based on a palate profile quiz in which users choose four to eight favorite flavor notes. Customers offer feedback on the coffee so the bean genius algorithm can make better recommendations in the future.

To compete against omnipresent Starbucks, the CUPS app for iPhone and Android offers various monthly coffee subscription plans in conjunction with participating independent coffee shops in the New York metro area. Think of it as Netflix for java. Their $120 dollar plan offers unlimited coffee drinks for the month! The only caveat is users must wait 30 minutes between orders.

Beyond black coffee

Consumers are also responding favorably to the numerous new, and sometimes wacky, coffee drinks on the market. The smoothness and low acidity of cold brew coffee has been popular for years, but recently brewers like Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Cuvée Coffee have started serving cold brew from a keg injected with nitrogen. The result is a smooth creamy coffee reminiscent of a hand-poured Guinness. Austin based start-up Coffer has created a fizzy cold brew coffee through fermentation. Cold brew is mixed with cane sugar and yeast. The result is described as refreshing and effervescent. Prefer your latte a little chunky? Visit Korean-based chain Caffe Bene’s in New York for a five-grain coffee latte made with sesame, barley, black beans, brown rice and soybeans. And Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Coffee, a mixture of coffee, grass fed butter and MCT oil, claims to curb users appetite and boost brainpower. Praised by some and criticized by others, Asprey’s Bulletproof Coffee shop is scheduled to open in Santa Monica, California in February.

Who knows what the future holds for the artisan coffee industry. Coffee delivered by drones? An alarm clock and coffee brewer in one? One thing is for sure; it’s definitely time to put that Mr. Coffee away.

If you’re a local coffee startup, we’d love to hear from you. Bon Appétech Conference will be a great way to connect with industry stakeholders, large brands and influential decision makers. We are hosting a startup expo where entrepreneurs can showcase and launch new products, including coffee innovations. More information available at

Post image copyright 2015 by Steve Harris. See full license for use.