Skip to main content

Tag: Berries

Indoor Ag Revolution: Citi’s Adam Bergman Shares Strategies For Growth, Sustainability

In this Q&A following his keynote address at last week’s Indoor Ag-Con 2024, “Indoor Farming – The Next Revolution In Agriculture,” Adam Bergman, Global Head of AgTech Investment Banking for Citi, sheds light on the promising trajectory of indoor farming despite the challenges encountered in 2023. He discusses the pivotal role of technology, financial strategies, crop diversification, funding opportunities, and strategic partnerships in propelling the indoor farming sector towards a sustainable and prosperous future.

Q: In your keynote, you talked about the promising future of indoor farming despite setbacks in 2023.  Can you elaborate on specific strategies and/or innovations that you believe will drive the rapid growth of indoor farming, especially in the context of the mega trends of food security, sustainability, and health & nutrition?

A: Food security, sustainable food systems, and health & nutrition are the biggest drivers of indoor farming. Food security initially spurred on indoor farming because of the supply chain disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a result,  the trend toward food globalization that started following World War II has gone into reverse. In the past few years, a growing number of countries, especially those in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that generated a huge amount of money during a period of high energy costs, speak more about food self-sufficiency and the role of indoor farming. Indoor farming is attractive to the GCC, because they do not have enough arable land and/or an optimal climate to grow outdoors.

As climate change persists, conditions are getting harsher for outdoor farmers, who are forced to deal with increasing weather volatility. Additionally, the global population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, which will necessitate roughly a 50% increase in the amount of food produced. Farmers, working with governments and NGOs around the globe, are going to need to figure out how to grow more with similar or fewer resources (chemical fertilizers, crop chemicals & pesticides, land, and water). Since indoor farms typically don’t use chemical fertilizers, crop chemicals or pesticides, and use significantly less land and water, they are a better solution for more environmentally sustainable agriculture.

The consumer also plays a key role in the food system. Previously, consumers were frequently beholden to CPG companies and retailers to purchase food. However, there have been significant changes in how consumers, particularly in the developed world, purchase food (direct-to-consumer, online purchases, food delivery, and meal kits), which is disintermediating many incumbents. Gen Z and Millennials especially are pushing back against industrial agriculture, which has played a large part in the ecological harm to soil and contamination of ground water, lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans, as well as damaging human health, as obesity rates have soared globally. Today, more consumers are demanding fresher, healthier and more nutritious foods that is grown sustainably. Indoor farms can be built on sites close to population centers, one advantage of which is having a much shorter supply chain.  Consumers can buy produce that lasts longer before spoiling and indoor farmers can grow products for taste, texture, and nutrient density rather than yield and logistics, which are priority for outdoor farmers shipping across North America or around the globe. In total, these three mega trends of food security, sustainable food systems and health & nutrition are poised to have a significant impact in accelerating on the growth of indoor farming globally.

Q:  Your extensive experience in Clean Energy Transition and AgTech investment banking positions you at the intersection of technology innovation and climate change.  How do you envision technology advancements influencing the future of indoor farming, and what role can financial institutions play in supporting these technological innovations for sustainable growth? 

A: Innovations in the greenhouse sector have accelerated over the past 150 years, with automation & robotics, building materials, digitization, more efficient water usage and improved energy efficiency all driving progress recently. The vertical farming sector is poised for similar transformational changes as LED light technology advances, and seed genetics are optimized to grow plants under various light spectrums. Once more indoor farms get to a point where key risks have been mitigated (financial performance, including positive EBITDA, multiple farms operating at full capacity, project developers with a strong track-record, and customer off-take agreements), financial institutions can play a significant role in financing new indoor farms, similar to the role they played in the growth of solar and wind projects. Once bankruptcy risks for indoor farming companies and projects are substantially reduced, opportunities will open up for project finance with 70+% debt to develop indoor farming and cheaper capital from insurance companies and pension funds looking for strong, long-term cash-flowing entities.

Q: In your presentation, you touched on the expansion of crop production into areas like  higher-margin produce, pharmaceuticals and specialty ingredients.  Could you provide insights into strategic considerations for indoor farmers looking to diversify their crop portfolios, and what opportunities you foresee in these emerging markets?

One of the challenges many vertical farming companies face is high production costs. This is mainly due to limited production capacity and high capital expense and operation costs currently. As vertical farms continue to struggle to be cost competitive with outdoor grown produce and many greenhouses, it is extremely important to diversify away from leafy greens to grow other products that command higher prices. This is similar to the biofuels sector two decades ago, when various companies decided to compete against the commoditized fuel sector rather than specialty chemicals, which could be sold at a much higher price point. Those companies that tried to compete against commoditized fuels frequently went bankrupt as they were capital intensive and did not have the requisite scale or cost structure to be economic.  Only those companies that focused on specialty chemicals were able to achieve a cost structure that made economic sense and, as they expanded and optimized production, were able to reduce costs and become cost competitive with more commoditized end-markets.  Based on the trends I have seen, I believe the same thing will occur with vertical farms, which should look to provide a variety of products that can be sold at higher prices (berries, coffee, forestry, pharmaceuticals, specialty ingredients), and ultimately to achieve economies of scale and drive costs down.

Q: In the context of securing funding for sustainable growth in the indoor farming sector, you mentioned leveraging the USDA loan program and other non-dilutive sources of capital.  Can you offer practical advice for businesses in the CEA industry on accessing these funding opportunities and navigating the financial landscape successfully?

The equity capital markets remain extremely challenging for most early- and growth-stage companies, with the traditional debt markets available for only a few of the largest, most profitable indoor farming companies. In challenging capital markets, it is more important that companies look for creative non-dilutive sources of capital. The two areas that show the most promise are government grants and government-backed loans. To this end, several companies have been able to secure state and local incentives to build new indoor farms in various locations throughout the US. Additionally, a growing number of indoor farming companies have accessed USDA loan guarantees. The advantage of loans associated with the USDA is they typically come at lower interest rates and frequently have lower covenants. Capital will remain one of the biggest obstacles for expanding indoor farming operations throughout North America and the rest of the world.

Q:  Strategic partnerships play a key role in the success  of companies in the indoor farming sector.  From your perspective, how can companies best approach and establish meaningful collaborations with partners like crop input providers, suppliers, retailers and others  to drive innovation and overcome challenges?

A: Like many highly capital-intensive growth sectors, indoor farming faces challenges in validating their business as a prerequisite to accessing capital, both equity and debt. In particularly difficult capital markets, strategic partners provide a means of validation for investors. It is also equally important to establish relationships with key customers, both food service and retailers. Finally, to be an attractive to potential investors, indoor farming companies need to be able to answer the following questions posed by investors:

1) What is your proof that you can build an indoor farm and scale production?

2) Are there consumers who want to buy your products?

3) Will consumers buy your products at a price where you can generate positive gross profit and EBITDA margins?

Those companies with positive answers will find an increasing amount of capital availability for growth, whereas those that struggle, particularly to generate positive financial metrics, will find sources of capital limited.

From Strawberry Roots To Berry Innovation: Nourse Farms CEO Shares Insights On Expansion, New Opportunities

From its beginnings as a local strawberry nursery in 1932, Nourse Farms has evolved into an internationally recognized soft fruit nursery. Indoor Ag-Con is pleased to have Nourse Farms as an exhibitor for our March 11-12, 2024 edition in Las Vegas. We had the opportunity to catch up with CEO John Place to learn more about the company’s rich history, exciting expansion plans, state-of-the-art tissue culture labs and greenhouses in this month’s CEA Q&A. Read on to learn how this industry leader is not only adapting to changing market dynamics but also shaping them, as Nourse Farms positions itself to meet the evolving needs of berry growers worldwide, especially in the controlled environment agriculture sector.

Nourse Farms has a rich history dating back over 90 years.  Can you share some key milestones in the company’s journey and how these have shaped its commitment to innovation and quality?

Aerial Photo Nourse Farms Whately, MA location
Aerial photo of Nourse Farms Whatley, Massaschusetts location

With Nourse Farms being around for almost a century, we’re fortunate to have a number of milestones that emphasize our commitment to innovation and delivering quality. Some highlights include:

  • 1932: The farm was established as a strawberry plant nursery
  • 1978: Raspberry plants added to the product mix
  • 1980: The first tissue culture lab built
  • 1982: Customized cooling facility built, allowing for storage of dormant, bare root plants
  • 2003: Blackberry plants added to the product mix
  • 2019: The first commercial planting of tray plants (strawberries) and long canes (brambles)
  • 2020-2022: The continued expansion of tray plants and long canes
  • Present: A major expansion of our lab, greenhouses, and growing facilities that is intended to not only increase our footprint, but also amplify our commitment to innovation, as we will be using cutting-edge technologies to help us grow the cleanest, highest quality plants possible.

The recent announcement about your expansion plans and partnership with an investment firm are exciting and significant developments for Nourse Farms. Could you elaborate on the strategic goals behind the expansion and how it positions the company to meet the evolving needs of berry growers worldwide, especially in the CEA sector?

Nourse Farms Mills River, North Carolina location
Nourse Farms Mills River, North Carolina location

Nourse Farms has focused on delivering the highest quality plants and exceptional customer service to the berry industry for decades. We are sitting at a pivotal point in North American berry farming where consumer demand is growing alongside new production techniques that are game-changers to the industry. Our goal is to secure our position as the market leader in berry plant propagation in North America. With that in mind, we are making a significant investment in our growing facilities in multiple locations to grow the highest quality plants for our customers.

We will now be growing in three distinct climates (Massachusetts, Washington, and North Carolina) so that the variety selection and plant type we have for our customers is grown in the best climate for its purpose. The new tissue culture lab, greenhouses, tray fields, trellis fields, and cold storage are all a part of our process and are included in the upgrades we are making. We believe these strategic investments will position us to scale quickly and efficiently to meet the changing needs of the market.

With the upcoming modern tissue culture lab and greenhouses in Massachusetts and North Carolina, how do you envision these facilities enhancing Nourse Farms’ ability to innovate and provide top-quality plants to your customers? Are there specific technologies or practices you’re excited to incorporate?

Tissue culture and micropropagation have been a cornerstone of Nourse Farms since we built our first lab in 1980. We use these techniques to grow our clean foundation mother plants, from which we propagate. With our ability to do in-house virus indexing and eliminate thru heat treatment, we can ensure our mother plants are of the highest quality. This new lab is actually our fourth lab to be built and will give us not only significant production capacity beyond our current lab but will also incorporate automation throughout the facility to aid in producing consistent, efficient, predictable results.

You’ve mentioned that you believe the future of berry production will increasingly demand substrate-grown plants. Can you provide some insights into the advantages and innovations in your substrate production process that make this approach so promising?

Nourse Farms long canes
Nourse Farms long canes

Over the last several years, we have been growing tray plants (strawberries) and long canes (brambles). We have learned a lot regarding growing systems, proper fertigation, timing of planting, and other important details to produce a plant that is fit for purpose for our customers. With this experience, we are now positioned to strategically scale this part of our operation to meet the growing demands of the industry and ensure that our customers will receive the high-quality plants they expect from us.

Now that we are growing in multiple climates, various plant types and varieties can grow in the optimal conditions that they require.

Variety development also plays a key role in the innovations that we are preparing for the market. We have been working with berry breeders around the world for decades in an effort to identify, import, trial, and then scale the best genetics for our customers.

As Nourse Farms continues to expand and innovate, what do you see as the most significant trends or opportunities in the controlled environment agriculture industry, and how is the company positioned to take advantage of these trends?

Berry consumers are demanding not only more berries but also higher quality berries. The strategic steps Nourse Farms is taking are a direct result of our response to the fact that berry production is moving from traditional outdoor growing areas towards indoor facilities near population centers. High-tech glasshouses and indoor vertical growing facilities require a plant type grown specifically for these high-capacity facilities to generate the return on investment that is required.

This is where the opportunity is for upstream suppliers like us. Our plants are grown specifically to meet this demand and give our customers the returns they need for their investments. The more growing we do—both of our plants and of our business—the more success for our customers.

For more information on Nourse Farms, visit the company website.
And, be sure to visit them in booth 317 at Indoor Ag-Con from March 11-12, 2024 at Caesars Forum in Las Vegas!

Produce Trends & Business Opportunities In the Covid Crisis

Indoor Ag-Con kicked off its Indoor Ag-Conversations webinar series in June 2020 . Partnering with United Fresh , we hosted a webinar addressing produce trends & business opportunities in the Covid crisis.  Moderated by United Fresh President & CEO Tom Stenzel, the panel included Paul Lightfoot, CEO and founder of BrightFarms, Alex DiNovo, president and COO of DNO Produce, and Victor Verlage, senior director of Agriculture Strategy Development at Walmart.

Kate Spirgen, editor of Garden Center, Greenhouse Management & Produce Grower magazines penned a terrific recap.  In it, she outlined five key takeaways from the panel touching on produce trends and business opportunities in the Covid crisis:

1. Berries are big on the horizon.

Panelists agreed that berries will be among the next hot items in CEA since growers can provide tastier options with longer shelf lives than conventional farms. “How variable is a strawberry’s taste when it’s conventional?” DiNovo asked. “You can have one that tastes fantastic and you can have one that tastes like dirt. You can have the same flavorful berry without Mother Nature wreaking havoc on it.”

Highly perishable items with complex supply chains are ripe for disruption, panelists said.

“What we’re interested in is beyond the shelf life, we want home life for the customers,” Verlage said. “We don’t want them to waste produce because it goes bad quickly.”

2. Create value by standing out.

From a marketing standpoint, DiNovo said indoor agriculture operations shouldn’t fight a conventional battle. By creating new names for products and branding them to stand out, growers can change the game.

“Create its own value by calling it something else,” he said. “If you call it by a conventional name, you’re going to compete on a conventional price basis.”  The coronavirus has impacted everything from supply chains to shopping habits.

 3. COVID-19 has increased consumers’ desire to keep money local.

DiNovo said the economic impact of the coronavirus has led to a greater demand to keep money in the local economy.  this is true whether it’s spending inside the community or providing jobs.
“That’s what local means to me more than anything else — it’s local impact,” he said.

4. Labor and supply chain concerns could lead to opportunities.

Lightfoot said he sees an opportunity to promote safety due to a smaller supply chain.  He added   that the current salad industry has seen issues with safety in the recent past.

“One farm’s contamination could have a bigger impact since more products are coming into contact with each other,” he said, stating that a longer supply chain makes tracking more difficult. “Those structural challenges don’t exist in our model as they do in the incumbent supply chain model.”

Creating new names and brands for products can help your CEA operation stand out in the marketplace. The year-round nature of indoor agriculture could also give CEA operations a leg up on labor.

Farm labor shortages, which he said have worsened due to the current administration’s policies on labor and immigration, have only been made more difficult by COVID-19. Housing and transportation have left farm employees more vulnerable to the disease.

“When this is over, borders will probably be less open, not more, so this issue will probably become worse,” he said.

“That’s what local means to me more than anything else — it’s local impact,” said Alex DiNovo, president and COO of DNO Produce.   CEA operations are better equipped to control entry to facilities.  And, year-round labor provides more stability in the workforce.

5. Retailers are looking for the right size solution for their stores.

Verlage said Walmart is looking for ways to mix big and smaller growers since different growers will bring solutions better suited to different communities.

“We are trying to figure out what is the right size project for the demand we face in different stores,” he said. “It has to be affordable, good nutritious food so that we can help everyone enjoy healthy food.”

The full session covering produce trends & business opportunities  in the Covid crisis was recorded and you can watch it here!