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Plants and AnimalsJonathan Rubin Takes Vertical Farming to Recent Heights

Jonathan Rubin Takes Vertical Farming to Recent Heights

Alumni Highlight: Jonathan Rubin Takes Vertical Farming to Recent Heights

Brett Essler
|June 6, 2023

jonathan rubin bending over plants under grow light

Jonathan Rubin graduated from the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program in 2020.

This story was originally published by Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Jonathan Rubin’s deep-rooted affinity for nature and the environment blossomed during his early life in Florida. From volunteering at a sea turtle hospital to embarking on exhilarating bike rides through the awe-inspiring Everglades, he 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 profession in policy roles, each within the Israeli parliament, often known as the Knesset, and in US congressional internships. Trying to mix his political experience along with his love for the environment, he enrolled within the one-year MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, which is obtainable jointly by Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and Climate School. As a student, Rubin was one in all the leaders of the Israel Trek, a week-long trip that exposed him to groundbreaking practices equivalent to water recycling, solar farms, and algae farms. These progressive sustainability approaches reinforced the invaluable lessons he learned within the classroom.

“At SIPA, loads of our courses were focused on economics, environmental policy, and biology,” Rubin remembers. “In a single course, [adjunct professor] Howard Apsan showed us vertical farms. And I said, ‘OK, let me give attention to vertical farms from all these different angles.’ So each time we had to write down papers, as a substitute of specializing in different environmental spheres so large, I focused specifically on vertical farms.”

Rubin received Columbia travel grants to further research sustainable farming. Amongst other things he studied aquaponics, an integrated growing ecosystem where fish and plants coexist harmoniously, with the fish waste serving as a natural fertilizer for the plants. In return, the plants filter and purify the water.

Rubin’s aquaponics experiment laid the muse for a hydroponic system, which cultivates plants in a nutrient-rich water solution without the necessity for soil.

In 2021 Rubin launched Fresh Florida Farms, which grows non-GMO hydroponic lettuce, microgreens, sprouts, herbs, and other leafy greens in Boca Raton — supplying fresh products to caterers, restaurants, supermarkets, and food banks in South Florida.

Growing crops in vertically stacked layers increases crop yields while reducing the quantity of space, water, and energy required in comparison with traditional agriculture and allows for year-round crop production. Because crops are grown in a controlled environment, there’s less need for pesticides and herbicides.

Fresh Florida Farms, Rubin says, now has the capability to supply 100,000 heads of lettuce per 12 months in “a really small space.”

The remarkable growth of the vertical farming industry, projected to achieve $9.7 billion in revenue by 2026 (up from $3.1 billion in 2021), is a testament to its potential.

“There are lots of parts to being a farmer. Only 30 percent is definitely growing the product. Rather a lot has to do with policy, logistical support and coping with the food safety regulations. Farmers can even spend numerous time researching and collaborating on projects with the USDA.”

While vertical farming undeniably advantages the environment, Rubin, along with his astute understanding of policy matters, emphasizes its broader geopolitical implications.

“Many countries are exploring the viability of developing vertical farms in hope to handle rising food costs and national food security threats,” he explains, pointing to UAE and Singapore, which have little farmable land. “Many smaller countries may import over 80 percent of their produce. If there have been to be a war and borders were to be closed, people would starve. Vertical farms have the potential to lower costs of farming making fresh produce more cost-effective for the masses.”

Rubin is entrepreneurial, of course — all the time seeking to maximize growth times, space capability, and even designed his own automated watering system — but Fresh Florida Farms also has a social mission. Rubin works with special needs students to show them concerning the farm and donates surplus crops to local food banks.

“I feel it’s a ravishing thing to see when the community comes together and is in a position to help profit different elements of the population,” Rubin says. “There are lots of social advantages, besides environmental advantages from this sort of operation.”

He can also be desperate to maintain his ties to the Columbia community, offering advice to current and future students considering launching their very own sustainability ventures: “Discover a professor to mentor you and help guide you in easy methods to get along further, network at events, attempt to win grants.” And, in fact, eat your leafy greens!


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