Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Babylon Micro-Farms aims to grow local food production

A close up of plants being sprouted in a glass case.
Babylon Micro-Farms started in Charlottesville during 2017, but needed more space and relocated to a Scott’s Addition warehouse. (Photos: Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

Alexander Olesen and Graham Smith used Solo cups, gutters and some grow lights to build their first hydroponic farm in 2016 while they were students at the University of Virginia.

“You know, we were reading textbooks and figuring it out,” Smith said about growing plants without soil. “And that’s how we came upon the conclusion that it is too difficult as-is for your average family or business to do.” 

Now, Olesen and Smith have been included in  the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for social impact because of their work as co-founders of Babylon Micro-Farms, which makes automated hydroponic systems for customers who want readily available, fresh produce. 

The micro-farms are futuristic, see-through cabinets glowing with LEDs and stocked with leafy greens and herbs. Smith said the idea is to make hydroponics more accessible. 

“Because actually running a hydroponic farm has a lot of barriers to entry. You have to be on your hands and knees with a pipette measuring nutrients and calibrating sensors and stuff like that,” he said. 

Babylon’s system is kind of like a Keurig, Smith said: Customers receive seed pods with QR codes that trigger notifications for harvesting, transplanting and cleaning the (dishwasher-safe) trays. Meanwhile, the system automatically dispenses the correct amount of water and nutrients. 

That means someone like a chef who is too busy to grow their own food can be walked through the process with a minimal time commitment. Smith said it’s a difference of committing several hours weekly as an experienced hydroponic grower and committing a half-hour weekly as a person “with no green thumb at all.” 

The company started in Charlottesville in 2017 but needed more space, so the pair settled in a Scott’s Addition warehouse. 

CEO Olesen said he’s interested in local food production because it supports local economies, reduces waste and helps people understand how their food reaches the table. 

“Whether it’s like senior living communities, hospitals, schools, they weren’t growing food before — that wasn’t really an option for them,” Olesen said. 

Right now, he said, Babylon has a small output compared to large-scale hydroponic farms, but the company’s visible products have an “outsized” impact on their customers that he hopes will get people thinking about their food. 

“People can actually watch the food grow from seed to harvest and then eat it. I think that’s an experience that most people have never had,” Olesen said. “We see that in the schools we serve as sort of a halo effect — people queue up for the salad bar, and that didn’t happen before.” 

Most of Babylon’s customers are hospitals, food service companies and restaurants. Food service giant Aramark has installed Babylon farms at four universities, including VCU. Olesen said the University of Richmond will soon have its own micro-farm, too. 

He said they have about 150 active micro-farm customers across 37 states and are looking to further expand in education, particularly K-12, and health-care settings. 

Babylon receives funding from investors and has secured two Small Business Innovation Research grants from the National Science Foundation to carry out research on automated farming. The goal, broadly, is to improve on artificial intelligence that can effectively control all the variables of growing — like temperature, nutrients, light — for commercial applications. 

As for the honor from Forbes, Olesen said it’s not distracting them from finding new ways to serve customers and grow their footprint. 

“It’s always good to get recognition, especially given we’ve been working at this for like six years,” Olesen said. “But really, it’s kind of one step, and we’ve gotta deliver. We’re focused on our business and making the numbers work.” 

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.