Sustainability

True Essence Foods Farm

Listening to the soil yields firsthand experiences to bring back to the lab

Listening to the soil yields firsthand experiences to bring back to the lab

While the True Essence Foods team spends a lot of time in the Innovation Lab uncovering ways to solve food flavor, sustainability and supply chain problems, this year multiple team members took their research outside, seeking answers directly from the soil and the community. 

Matt Rubin, Bianca Cuellar, Justin Otani and Adam Ambrecht had their shovels first hit the ground in May 2022, and by the end of their first summer as True Essence Foods Farm, they had harvested a plethora of vegetables and, more importantly, gained firsthand experience as food producers. 

True Essence Foods founder Matt Rubin mentally planted the seed for the farm a decade before. Fascinated with how plants grow, he had studied biology, microbiology, mycology and botany in college. Peanut farmers in Georgia planting clover as part of their no-till practices intrigued him. Through the years, he’d jotted down notes on farming methods such as hydroponics and looked into the concept of shared neighborhood gardens, but he’d never been able to take the leap to actually farm himself. 

Three key factors that live at the heart of the True Essence Foods culture led him to pull the trigger: 

  1. A shared fascination with flavor and food supply chains — understanding how foods get from the farm to someone’s dinner plate 
  2. A belief that you have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to truly understand them
  3. A reverence for nature and its ability to inspire innovation for the global good

Plus, he had two young children. He wanted them to experience the farm. And so early on a chilly spring morning, he packed a sack lunch and was the first in line — by a long shot — to claim a plot of land on the west side of Indianapolis that was part of Indy Parks and Recreation’s community garden program. The City of Indianapolis makes the land available to neighborhood residents for farming, and Rubin signed up for the only 2,500 square foot space available. 

“Everything we do starts with observation. We wanted to stretch our legs and learn something,” Rubin says. ”Our goal was to get experience with farming starting with basic principles.”

Matt, Bianca, Justin and Adam spent a full day tilling the soil by hand, turning over hard, dry chunks of clay-rich soil.  First things first, they had to rejuvenate the land.

“We said that if we end this year with something that looks like soil, we’ve done our job. We would plant different things and let the soil tell us what it likes.”

They weren’t afraid to try, fail and take cues from farmers working adjacent plots. They mounded rows to gain control over water retention and soil compaction, but the rain didn’t come. People around them were using stakes to right taller plants, so they put stakes in the ground. They scattered seeds, dropped starter plants into holes, watered seedlings and yanked up weeds, not always sure if they were doing it right, but learning along the way.

After their first planting, they had lettuce, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and more. Then they planted cover crops to choke off weeds and support soil rejuvenation. And then came eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries, corn, basil, lemon balm, sweet mint, potatoes, watermelon, snap peas and every pepper imaginable. 

The team harvested wild-growing amaranth and purslane that came up between sweet potato plants, a form of “weeding as harvesting” that yielded delicious sautes of healthy greens. 

By the end of the season, the soil was crumbly and black. Rubin held a fistful in his hand and squeezed. It clumped well but didn’t drip water. Just the right amount of moisture, he had learned.

“Everything we do starts with observation. We wanted to stretch our legs and learn something. Our goal was to get experience with farming starting with basic principles.”
Matt Rubin, CEO, True Essence Foods

Working the land inspires True Essence Foods as a company

A few months into the farm experiment, Rubin found himself swapping tomato-growing woes with a True Essence Foods partner. The temperature swings and lack of rain were awful for tomatoes this year. This seemingly minor issue pointed to a larger one and part of the business case for True Essence Foods Farm: being able to get to the ground level where fruit and vegetable flavors come from.

“Looking at what’s wrong with food supply chains, we wanted to ask questions: Where did the problem start? How did the food get to the processor? How was it grown? You have to find the root cause of a problem if you want to solve it,” Rubin says.

During this first season, the True Essence Foods team learned lots of lessons they can bring back in some way to their research and development of new food technologies: 

  • The slight slope in their plot greatly impacted watermelon growth rates.
  • Putting in only a few squash plants will create more, bigger vegetables than planting numerous smaller ones.
  • Growing clover can equalize a nitrogen imbalance.
  • Corn must be planted close together to enable pollination.
  • A flower barrier around the perimeter of your garden will deter animals and pests. 

The lessons might seem basic, but they could inspire solutions to real problems related to food chains. 

“We’re taking sustainability all the way back to where the water is used and where you’re taking care of the soil and growing plants. It was a great way to understand what it takes to really grow a crop,” Rubin says.

Many of their crops went straight to work. Purple basil, lemon balm and sweet mint were picked and delivered to the True Essence Innovation Lab where they were dried and processed to achieve True Essence Flavor Symmetry. Conversely, organic waste from R&D efforts were carried out to the farm to be used as fertilizer — reflecting the symbiotic, integrated relationship between the lab and the land.

When a True Essence Foods licensee needed to talk shop, but Rubin also needed to re-truss his tomatoes, the partners picked up tacos and got their business done at the farm. The customer is a fourth-generation California peach and raisin farmer. He was happy talking about technology and inventory challenges among the tomato vines. 

True Essence Foods Farm nourishes community and family 

The farm has also allowed True Essence Foods to grow its community. Many farmers are the first generation of their families to live in the United States. Their food roots are in Afghanistan, Mexico or Africa, and they’re planting vegetables they can’t find in their local Indianapolis groceries. They’re feeding their families as well as sharing knowledge and food with fellow farmers.  

A farmer from Kenya who grew saga and managu gave Rubin and his team bunches of the wild greens to boil and sautee into a traditional African dish that included lots of bright yellow banana peppers from the True Essence Foods’ yield. 

The farm also creates ways for the immediate True Essence Foods family to come together. 

“We’ve had days where all of our kids come out to pick vegetables. It breaks up the momentum of going to the grocery store and getting whatever you want. Instead, what’s for dinner is what’s coming off the farm,” Rubin says.

Revelations on the farm can happen every day if you’re open to them. When Rubin’s daughter picked her first strawberry, it clicked for her. “Daddy, food comes from plants and plants come from dirt,” she said. 

It was an eye-opening experience full of learning for the team at True Essence Foods. The 2022 season ends in early November, and they are already researching and planning next year’s crop. 

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