As local as it gets: why Microsoft has farmers growing vegetables in the office

When your corporate campus is the size of a small city, it’s time to reexamine your carbon footprint. Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, started out as 88 acres, and today it spans 500. There are soccer fields, a hair salon, restaurants, a bank, a bike shop—even an optician’s office. And the many thousands of people on that campus have to eat.

Jessica Schilke, left, and Mark Freeman in front of the hydroponic towers

Jessica Schilke, left, and Mark Freeman in front of the hydroponic towers

A few years ago, Mark Freeman, senior manager of Microsoft Dining and Beverage Services, saw a food system in need of an update: “We see Microsoft as a city, and as we look at that city, we want to meet the needs of our citizens by offering a variety of healthy foods that help make our employees happy and productive.” That meant finding ways to source ingredients responsibly and sustainably.

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Everyone knows the benefits of local produce: fewer fossil fuels required to transport the goods to market, fresher ingredients, and money that goes back to your community. As Freeman saw it, there was no reason why the city of Microsoft shouldn’t include some indoor “farmland.”

Going (micro)green

Jessica Schilke, an urban farming specialist at Microsoft, helps manage an experiment that might just revolutionize what it means to “eat local” at the office. She and her team grow trays of microgreens in brightly lit cultivation machines that look like glass fridges and a variety of lettuces in hydroponic towers. These veggies aren’t hidden away, either. According to Schilke, “Our guests get to watch the microgreens and salad greens grow right in the cafés.”

It didn’t take much to convince Microsoft employees that these greens are enviable. As Schilke notes, “I love to do side-by-side comparisons of the ones we were buying before and the ones we are growing now; the microgreens we grow are full of flavor—some earthy, others very spicy—whereas the ones we were buying were described to me as just tasting ‘green.’”

The urban farming project is eco-conscious in myriad ways. Pesticides and herbicides are not necessary in an indoor growing environment, and all the microgreens are grown with 100 percent certified organic inputs. The hydroponic systems use considerably less water than a conventional farming operation—“up to 90 percent less water than a standard field-grown lettuce crop,” says Schilke, “since the water stays in the towers rather than evaporating or draining away.” Plus, the leafy greens can be grown year-round, which eliminates the need for importing the goods in Washington’s winter months.

The produce travels only a few hundred feet from tower to salad bar and is served quickly—often only an hour or two after harvest.

Although it is cheaper to grow the microgreens in-house than it is to buy them wholesale, Schilke says the real motivation for this agricultural revolution is Microsoft Dining’s commitment to “serving our guests the highest quality and freshest ingredients.” It’s hard to deny the appeal of this truly local solution: the produce travels only a few hundred feet from tower to salad bar and is served quickly—often only an hour or two after harvest.

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Sowing the seeds of sustainability

The new program is not yet meeting all of Microsoft’s microgreen needs, but it will soon. An expansion is just around the corner, and the urban farmers will grow 100 percent of the company’s microgreens on campus within the next three months. We can’t wait to see what’s next for on-campus agriculture. With the interest and support of the finest technological minds in the world, the urban farming program at Microsoft is poised to cultivate a sustainable agricultural revolution.

All photos courtesy of Scott Eklund