Alumni Spotlight: Jonathan Rubin takes vertical farming to new heights
This story was originally published by Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Jonathan Rubin’s deep affinity for nature and the environment blossomed during his formative years in Florida. From volunteering at a sea turtle hospital to exhilarating bike rides through the awe-inspiring Everglades, he has forged an unbreakable bond with the natural world.
After moving to Israel – where he studied government, diplomacy and strategy as an undergraduate – Rubin pursued a career in political roles, both in the Israeli parliament, known as Knesset, and in US Congressional Internships. Seeking to combine his political background with his love for the environment, he enrolled in the one-year program MPA Program in Environmental Science and Policywhich is jointly offered by Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs And climate school. As a student, Rubin was one of the leaders of the Israel Trek, a week-long journey that exposed him to groundbreaking practices such as water recycling, solar farms and water farms. ‘algae. These innovative approaches to sustainability reinforced the invaluable lessons he learned in the classroom.
“At SIPA, a lot of our classes focused on economics, environmental policy, and biology,” Rubin recalls. “In a course, (assistant professor) Howard Apsan showed us vertical farms. And I said, ‘OK, let me focus on vertical trusses from all these different angles.’ So whenever we had to write articles, instead of focusing on different environmental spheres that were so broad, I focused specifically on vertical farms.
Rubin has received Columbia Travel Fellowships to further his research on sustainable agriculture. Among other things, he studied aquaponics, an integrated growth ecosystem where fish and plants coexist harmoniously, with fish waste serving as a natural fertilizer for plants. In return, the plants filter and purify the water.
Rubin’s aquaponics experiment laid the foundation for a hydroponic system, which grows plants in a nutrient-rich water solution without the need for soil.
In 2021, Rubin launched Florida Fresh Farmswhich grows non-GMO hydroponic lettuce, microgreens, sprouts, herbs and other leafy greens in Boca Raton – supplying fresh produce to South Florida’s caterers, restaurants, supermarkets and food banks.
Cultivating crops in vertically stacked layers increases crop yields while reducing the amount of space, water and energy required compared to traditional farming and enables year-round agricultural production. Because the crops are grown in a controlled environment, there is less need for pesticides and herbicides.
Fresh Florida Farms, Rubin says, now has the capacity to produce 100,000 heads of lettuce per year in “a very small space.”
The remarkable growth of the vertical farming industry, which is expected to reach $9.7 billion in revenue by 2026 (from $3.1 billion in 2021), is a testament to its potential.
“There are many aspects to being a farmer. Only 30% actually grow the product. A lot has to do with policy, logistical support and dealing with food safety regulations. Farmers will also spend a lot of time researching and collaborating on projects with the USDA.
While vertical farming undeniably benefits the environment, Rubin, with his shrewd understanding of political issues, emphasizes its wider geopolitical implications.
“Many countries are exploring the viability of developing vertical farms in hopes of coping with rising food prices and threats to national food security,” he explains, citing the United Arab Emirates and Singapore. , which have little arable land. “Many small countries can import more than 80% of their production. If there was a war and the borders were closed, people would starve. Vertical farms have the potential to lower the costs of farming, making fresh produce more affordable for the masses.
Rubin is entrepreneurial, sure — always striving to maximize grow times, space capacity, and even designed his own automated watering system — but Fresh Florida Farms has a social mission, too. Rubin works with students with special needs to teach them about farming and donates surplus crops to local food banks.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing to see when the community comes together and is able to help different aspects of the population,” Rubin says. “There are many social benefits, in addition to the environmental benefits of this type of operation.”
He’s also keen to maintain his ties to the Columbia community, offering advice to current and future students interested in starting their own sustainability projects: “Find a teacher to mentor you and help you get along better, network at events, try to win grants. And, of course, eat your leafy greens!