Creating A Whole New Fresh Food Experience Category | Q&A With Fifth Season CEO Austin Webb
Fifth Season has been making headlines in recent weeks . In addition to a feature story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, other outlets have covered the vertical-and-robotic-farming pioneer’s expanded distribution partnership with food retailer Giant Eagle Inc., and its designation as “Official Greens” provider for the NHL 2020 -2021 season of the Pittsburgh Penguins. These stories follow many others that have tracked the company’s impressive innovations and accomplishments over the last year.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, Fifth Season’s newest vertical farm in Braddock, PA, a historic steel town on the edge of Pittsburgh, features a 25,000-square-foot grow room with twice the growing capacity of traditional vertical farms. It is set to grow more than 500,000 lbs. of produce in its first full year of operation.
Indoor Ag-Con had a chance to catch up with Fifth Season CEO Austin Webb, who co-founded the company with brother Brac Webb (and one of this week’s Indoor Ag-Conversations panelists) and Austin Lawrence. In this Q&A, Austin shares more about company’s mission, unique approach and plans for the future:
Q: The state of PA is quickly becoming a hot spot for indoor vertical farming for food production. What does this mean to you as it relates to providing solid jobs and living wages to a previously economically depressed area?
At Fifth Season, creating a whole new category of fresh food experience is paramount to our mission. As is a deep community engagement across new economic development, new jobs, increased food security, and newfound discovery of STEM/Ag education.
In 2020, Fifth Season donated over 5,000 meals to our neighbors in need. We also successfully hired 100% of our jobs with local Braddock and Pittsburgh residents. This helped to create a new workforce of the future – i.e. new Ag Manufacturing jobs inside the city that have never existed before.
Overall, we chose to build in Pittsburgh’s historic steel town of Braddock for a reason. Solving large global problems with deep, local community engagement is important to us. You would never expect that a company could sustainably grow such clean produce in the heart of steel town USA. But at Fifth Season, that’s what creating a whole new category of fresh food experience is all about.
Q: With Bowery Farming expanding to Bethlehem, do you feel any sense of competition?
Not at all. We are extremely differentiated in this space given our technology and economics. Furthermore, the real competition is traditional outdoor growing out West. Our industry needs to adopt scalable technologies faster, if we’re going to win. At Fifth Season, we’ve developed the first truly scalable technology platform with positive unit economics that work today with one facility – not 5 years from now with a requirement of 5+ facilities. This is also an industry-first.
Q: What’s been the toughest yet most rewarding part of your job as Fifth Season CEO?
Indoor Ag is a tough business. There’s never an easy win; you have to earn them all. The overall resilience it has taken our team to build our disruptive tech platform in such a demanding business with such hard requirements across a breadth of technical factors — including but not limited to hardware, software, grow science, operations design, new food product development, etc. — is extraordinary and rewarding. I am beyond proud of the Fifth Season team.
Q: Is there any part of your job that you never saw coming? Something you’ve done which was not in the job description?
One subset of our values is “no job is too small.” So whatever it takes to complete the mission, it’s in the job description. And this makes our challenging jobs here at Fifth Season even more fun. It’s inspiring to see engineers, horticulturalists, food scientists, product managers, supply chain specialists, and marketing gurus coming together at one table. You won’t find a more cross-functional, cross-disciplined company / team to work with than Fifth Season!
Q: What differentiates Fifth Season from other indoor farms in the marketplace today?
Namely, we are the only vertical farm that has positive unit economics with just one 60K square foot facility. We provide a superior return on capital compared to leafy greens greenhouses, because we designed a smart manufacturing system, not a farm. This has given us a stepwise function change in key cost drivers. Among them, labor and density (therefore, lbs to fixed costs ratio).
This is all driven by our truly automated end-to-end platform. Every single step of the process, not just a couple of areas, is automated with strategically embedded human-robot interaction. More importantly, the entire process is run by our proprietary software brain and pathfinding algorithm. As a result, all of that automation – all electromechanical systems – sits within our software skin and in-house built firmware, which is truly industry 5.0
We’ve been able to do this because we approached this problem differently. Instead of moving farming from outdoors to indoors, or simply sprinkling on technology to part of a growing platform, we rolled up our sleeves and built an entirely unique system from the ground up – all with just a fraction of the time and a fraction of the capital compared to the rest of the space.
To-date, Indoor Ag has unfortunately been held back by overhyped, false promises and facade tech demonstrations. It’s time to put that behind us and finally usher in the Indoor Ag future we’ve all been waiting for – with Fifth Season technology.
6- What’s next for Fifth Season?
Fifth Season is extremely excited to be expanding both our products and our geographic presence. We’re taking the impact we’re making in Braddock and Pittsburgh-wide to other communities across the country
To learn more about Fifth Season, check out video below and visit www.fifthseasonfresh.com