For as long as I can remember, people have been hyping vertical farming — growing crops indoors, using vertical space to intensify production.
Its virtues, relative to conventional agriculture, have long been clear. Indoors, the climate can be controlled year-round. Pests can be minimized, and with them pesticides. Water and nutrients can be appliedin precise quantities.By going up rather than out, a vertical farm can produce more food per acre of land. And by siting close to an urban area, it can reduce long distribution chains, getting fresher food to customers’ tables, quicker.
Its drawbacks have become equally clear. They mainly come down to cost. Farming well requires deep know-how and expertise; it has proven extraordinarily difficult to expand vertical farms in a way that holds quality consistent while driving costs down. Optimizing production at a small scale is very different from doing so at a large scale. The landscape is littered with the corpses of vertical-farming startups that thought they could beat the odds (though several are still alive and kicking).
Now a young Silicon Valley startup called Plenty thinks it has cracked the code. It has enormous expansion plans and a bank account full of fresh investor funding, but most excitingly, it plans to build a 100,000 square foot vertical-farming warehouse this year in Kent, Washington, just outside of Seattle, your author’s home town. That farm is expected to produce 4.5 million pounds of greens annually. Your author, in keeping with coastal elitist stereotypes, is a fervent lover of greens.
In part because I now have a personal stake in the matter, I thought I’d take a look at the company, its prospects, the environmental benefits it promises, and — perhaps most importantly — some of the unnerving social and political implications of a vertical farming revolution.
It checks all the boxes: It recently got a huge round of funding ($200 million in July, the largest ag-tech investment in history), including some through Jeff Bezos’s investment firm, so it has the capital to scale; it is leaning heavily on machine learning and AI; it has endorsements from several Michelin-rated chefs (“I’ve never had anything of this quality.” a former sous-chef at French Laundry, Anthony Secviar, told Bloomberg); it is in talks with several large distributors in the US and abroad; heck, it even lured away the director of battery technology at Tesla, Kurt Kelty, to be executive of operations and development. (You’re nothing in Silicon Valley without an ex-Tesla exec.)
“I wanted to figure out where I would contribute to the next big wave.” Kelty told Bloomberg. “I see my next 10-year-run as growing Plenty.”
The company is run by CEO Matt Barnard, a former private equity investor, and CTO Nate Storey, an agronomist who did his doctoral work in tower farming. (Storey also founded Bright Agrotech, which he left to join Plenty. In June, Plenty acquired the company.)
Plenty grows plants on 20-foot vertical towers instead of the stacks of horizontal shelves used by most other vertical-farming companies. Plants jut horizontally from the towers, growing out of a substrate made primarily of recycled plastic bottles (there’s no soil involved). Water and nutrients are fed in from the top of the tower and dispersed by gravity (rather than pumps, which saves money). All water, including from condensation, is collected and recycled.
The plants receive no sunlight, just light from hanging LED lamps. There are thousands of infrared cameras and sensors covering everything, taking fine measurements of temperature, moisture, and plant growth; the data is used by agronomists and artificial intelligence nerds to fine-tune the system.
The towers are so close together that the effect is a giant wall of plants.
Currently, Plenty is focusing on leafy greens and herbs — varieties of lettuce, kale, mustard greens, basil, etc. — but it says it can use the system to grow anything except root vegetables and tree fruits. Strawberries and cucumbers are coming up next. (It’s worth noting that anything beyond leafy greens requires more light and thus more energy, so the source and cost of an indoor farm’s electricity is of keen interest.)
There are virtually no pests in a controlled indoor environment, so Plenty doesn’t have to use any pesticides or herbicides; it gets by with a few ladybugs. The produce from Plenty’s San Francisco warehouse is certified organic, but leaders in the industry also like to stress that vertical farming is local, with an entirely transparent supply chain. (Why yes, you can also get that at your local farmers market.)
Bottom line: Relative to conventional agriculture, Plenty says that it can get as much as 350 times the produce out of a given acre of land, using 1 percent as much water. “It is the most efficient [form of agriculture] in terms of the amount of productive capacity per dollar spent.” Barnard has said. “Period.”
It’s worth reading those claims again, as they are pretty eye-popping. The next grandest claim in the industry is AeroFarms, a Newark, New Jersey company with nine indoor farms, which says it can get to 130 times the amount of produce per acre.
What’s more, Plenty says its products taste better than most of what customers now have access to. Around 35 percent of fruits and vegetables eaten in the US today are imported. Leafy greens travel an average of 2,000 miles to reach your plate. Some produce has been on ships and trucks for two weeks before it reaches the table — having lost, by some estimates, 45 percent of its nutritional value along the way. Produce is bred to survive that long journey with its aesthetics, but not necessarily its flavor, intact.
Plenty plans to build warehouses not inside major cities, but just outside them, next to distribution centers, to minimize the time its food spends in transit — it wants produce to go from harvest to table in hours, rather than days.If it can do that, the company will be able to grow and sell a wide variety of rare and heirloom breeds, which are more tender and flavorful than what’s available at the supermarket, but less resilient to long journeys.
In fact, Barnard says he will save more money on trucks and fuel than he spends on facilities and power.
The company’s goal is to build an indoor farm outside of every city in the world of more than 1 million residents — around 500 in all. It claims it can build a farm in 30 days and pay investors back in three to five years (versus 20 to 40 for traditional farms). With scale, it says, it can get costs down to competitive with traditional produce (for a presumably more desirable product that could command a price premium).
If it can back up those claims in practice, Plenty might not revolutionize global agriculture, but it will sure as hell establish vertical farming as a real thing.