By Sara Wildberger
Babylon Micro-Farms didn’t intend to have senior living communities as a major customer for its indoor systems to grow greens, herbs, and flowers for fresh additions to menus. But the company’s remote management technology turned out to be especially well-suited for senior living during the pandemic—and like many other product and service providers, the indoor farming company found out it liked senior living.
The company sends all supplies to set up the farm, with seeded pods as well as sensors and software to connect to the remote hub, which gives the community custom instructions on care—when to water, feed nutrient solutions, adjust pH, and more, throughout the plant life cycle.
“Indoor farming represents an exciting, sustainable solution that has changed the way we source certain fresh produce items around the world—and definitely here in the United States,” says Alexander Olesen, CEO and founder of Babylon Micro-Farms.
They’re one of several companies offering various solutions to get more food closer to the table, thus saving on transportation, labor, and vagaries of supply.
In senior living, growing food indoors or in gardens on the grounds or nearby also reaps the benefits of increased engagement.
“The residents loved it—the communities were building programs around it,” Olesen says. “That’s when we knew we had found an exciting market.” The company jumped in, collaborating on programs such as harvest parties and special meals.
Commonwealth Senior Living opened the door to Babylon Micro-Farms, piloting the program—Olesen calls its vice president of dining and procurement Bob Raymond “a pioneer.” Commonwealth has gone on to establish farms in all of its more than 35 locations; Watermark and Senior Lifestyle are some of the other providers that farm with Babylon.
While microgreens are a popular product for indoor farming, they’re not the only one—communities can grow full-head lettuce, kale, herbs, and edible flowers. Babylon offers more than 43 varieties of herbs, greens, and flowers.
Indoor farms can lead to an uptick in utilities costs. Communities should take into consideration the full realm of costs and benefits, including quality, resident preferences, less concern about recalls (which often involve fresh greens), increasing weather events affecting crops and shipping, quantities needed, and design of the community and dining areas.
Stability and consistency—having a fixed output at a fixed price—can be a cost efficiency, Olesen adds, especially during times of inflation and shortages.
SCALING UP SUSTAINABILITY
Another consideration is labor, particularly with the additional duties and cross-training required of all senior living associates these days. So Babylon turned its attention to that issue. Olesen says the company has gotten the typical labor time from 45 minutes a week down to 20 or 30 minutes through efficiency redesigns and is working on further reductions.
While you can’t feed a community on greens alone, even a small indoor farm demonstrates a commitment to sustainability initiatives—for residents and prospects as well as for owner/operators and investors. Babylon is developing data reporting that looks at activities and can produce measures for engagement and sustainability impacts.
“I think indoor farming, much like solar power about 20 years ago, has reached an inflection point, where the cost structures are lining up,” says Olesen.
“The quality is there. And now it’s just a question of scaling up to where we’ll see indoor farms become a staple part of the food system of the future.”