Microsoft is growing up – but not in the way you think. The software giant is turning over a new leaf with an urban farming project in the heart of Café 34 (one of its primary cafeterias) on the Redmond campus. Lettuce is farmed from glowing hydroponic towers on site, giving Microsoft employees an opportunity to see exactly where some of their food comes from, and the company another feather in its cap in regards to sustainability.

Mark Freeman is the Senior Manager for Global Dining at Microsoft. That title basically means he’s in charge of feeding everyone at Microsoft, which amounts to 35,000 to 40,000 meals a day at the Redmond campus alone. An idea for farming on campus had been brewing for Freeman for some time, but it wasn’t until a chance visit to the Seattle Home and Garden Show three years ago did the idea begin to fully form when he found the Foody, a vertical indoor gardening system. “We’d been looking into hydroponics, and at what some farms were doing, but they were all using horizontal methods. How would those fit for us? It wouldn’t. We needed something vertical and accessible,” he says.

Jessica Schilke, urban farming specialist at Microsoft, shows off a flat of microgreens.

Jessica Schilke, urban farming specialist at Microsoft, shows off a flat of microgreens. Photo by Ethan Chung

“This is something that’s still relatively new to the market, so there are still plenty of improvements that can be made. But that’s one of the exciting things about being able to use it here. We have plenty of innovative people here that can come up with some good solutions,” says Jessica Schilke, urban farming specialist for Microsoft’s Dining and Beverage Services. The project has drawn interest from employees as far away as Milan, and there is growing interest on campus about sustainable urban farming.

Freeman says that it seems like every week, employees are coming up with ways to infuse technology with the gardening program. “We have a lab where we test things before we introduce them to the campus. We tested halogen lights and we tested LED lights. While we were in that process, some folks came by with plasma lights and explained how they were more efficient and were a better light source for the plants. We tested them, and sure enough, the lights made red lettuce more vibrant in color where it had been fairly green and sort of limp with the other lights.” Other suggestions included apps that help track growth of plants or map out locations on campus that feature sustainable farming.

John Howie's in.gredients is one of the main users of sustainable microgreens that are grown on campus.

John Howie’s in.gredients is one of the main users of sustainable microgreens that are grown on campus. Photo by Ethan Chung.

Freeman has big dreams and aspirations for the program, much of which he’s not quite ready to share, as plenty of it is in the dream and testing phase. But his goal is 100 percent sustainability. He believes the towers are just a tip of the iceberg, and he expects the program to grow incrementally. Growth of the program is ensured by the campus’ involvement and interest – employees are constantly buzzing around the lettuce towers and taking selfies. Freeman says consumption has gone up too, both for the lettuce from the towers and the microgreens they grow nearby, which are used on pizzas and in the John Howie restaurant, in.gredients. Right now, Schilke harvests approximately 16 pounds of lettuce from the towers, and approximately 60 flats of microgreens a week. To get an idea of value, Schilke says microgreens often sell for approximately $16 a flat, and the program goal is to produce about 250 flats a week by the end of the year, which will account for 100 percent of the campus’ microgreen needs.

Freeman says Microsoft is participating in other food sustainability programs, too, such as the “Misfit Produce Rescue.” The company buys produce from local farms that doesn’t have the cosmetic look it needs to be a successful product at a grocery store. The produce tastes the same, and the customer never knows what the original piece of produce looks like because it’s prepared behind-the-scenes. Freeman also has developed a partnership with Lummi Island Fishery, a sustainable salmon fishery near Bellingham. He’s taken Microsoft chefs there to fish and learn about the product, and that’s the only source of salmon for Microsoft’s Redmond campus.

“All of our stuff is compostable. We’re 92.8-percent zero waste in food service. We’re really pushing sustainability. As Jessica put it, our carbon footprint is going from 250 miles to 250 feet,” Freeman says. Schilke added that even though the hydroponic towers rely on water, they are far less wasteful than traditional farming. As we experience more droughts and unfavorable growing conditions, she says it makes more sense to grow your own food rather than source it from areas like California that are facing harsh environmental issues.

“I was a bit surprised about the interest this is generating. Right now, it’s not meeting the production needs that we have. But getting people to think about fresh food in a subtle way is really exciting. That feeling is going to be the key,” Freeman says.