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Alumni Spotlight: Jonathan Rubin Takes Vertical Farming to New Heights

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 formative years 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 career in policy roles, both in the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset, and in US congressional internships. Looking to combine his political experience with his love for the environment, he enrolled in the one-year MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, which is offered jointly 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 trip that exposed him to groundbreaking practices such as water recycling, solar farms, and algae farms. These innovative sustainability approaches reinforced the invaluable lessons he learned in the classroom.

“At SIPA, a lot of our courses were focused on economics, environmental policy, and biology,” Rubin remembers. “In one course, [adjunct professor] Howard Apsan showed us vertical farms. And I said, ‘OK, let me focus on vertical farms from all these different angles.’ So whenever we had to write papers, instead of focusing on different environmental spheres so large, I focused specifically on vertical farms.”

Rubin received Columbia travel grants to further research sustainable farming. Among 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 foundation for a hydroponic system, which cultivates plants in a nutrient-rich water solution without the need 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 amount of space, water, and energy required compared to traditional agriculture and allows for year-round crop production. Because 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, projected to reach $9.7 billion in revenue by 2026 (up from $3.1 billion in 2021), is a testament to its potential.

“There are many parts to being a farmer. Only 30 percent is actually growing the product. A lot has to do with policy, logistical support and dealing with the food safety regulations. Farmers will also spend lots of time researching and collaborating on projects with the USDA.”

While vertical farming undeniably benefits the environment, Rubin, 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 address 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 were 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 affordable for the masses.”

Rubin is entrepreneurial, for sure — always looking to maximize growth times, space capacity, and even designed his own automated watering system — but Fresh Florida Farms also has a social mission. Rubin works with special needs students to teach them about the farm 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 benefit different aspects of the population,” Rubin says. “There are many social benefits, besides environmental benefits from this kind of operation.”

He is also eager to maintain his ties to the Columbia community, offering advice to current and future students interested in launching their own sustainability ventures: “Find a professor to mentor you and help guide you in how to get along further, network at events, try to win grants.” And, of course, eat your leafy greens!

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Yossi Shapiro
Yossi Shapiro
1 year ago

Jonathan’s work is inspiring in its focus on building a sustainable system, to support nutrition, awareness through education, social responsibility and food security. Great article!