The Center of Excellence for Indoor Agriculture, a U.S. based company that supports the growth of the vertical and indoor farming industry, announced a new assessment service for farmers and investors to bench-mark the efficiency and sustainability of their indoor farm operations.
The new service helps indoor growers including plant factories and greenhouses measure how much land, energy, water, labor and materials are needed to produce yields. The assessment also calculates by-products such as solid waste and waste water, as well as capital use efficiency and job creation by the venture. At the end of the assessment, the respondent receives a report detailing the status of key parameters. Most importantly, key metrics are bench-marked against similar farms so growers can target areas for improvement. To get started, identify key records and contact the Center to set up an appointment to start. More info is available at https://indooragcenter.org/sustainable-farm-assess/.
Eric W. Stein, Ph.D., founder and Executive Director of the Center of Excellence notes, “Indoor farming is a high-risk capital intensive endeavor. Operating efficiently and sustainably can make the difference between profitability and loss. We are excited to work with growers and investors to improve their operations thereby de-risking the venture. Because of its importance, we are offering this service at or below cost for a limited time.”
About The Center
The Center of Excellence for Indoor Agriculture provides insights about the economics of indoor farming based on a careful analysis of industry data and thought leaders in industry and academia. As the first U.S.-based Center of Excellence dedicated to indoor farming, it promotes best practices, bench-marking, new knowledge and research. Its Best in Class Indoor Farming AwardsTM recognize top indoor growers and manufacturers. The Center is located in the Philadelphia metro region and it is free to join the mailing list.
In this Q&A, Cultivatd Co-Founder & VP of Business Development Eric Levesque talked about the indoor farming industry — and how to overcome obstacles when startning an indoor farm — with AgriTechTomorrow.
Tell us about yourself and what inspired you to start Cultivatd.
I entered the ag tech space approximately 5 years ago when I joined ZipGrow Inc in a leadership role as Head of Sales and Business Development. After acquiring a minority stake in the company, I helped to grow the company to 10 million in sales and from only a few employees to 20 or so in the first 24 months. The outpouring of support from potential clients was astounding but the solution offered was niche for most projects, leading us to turning away potential buyers on a regular basis. With that in mind, Eric Bergeron (Co-Founder of ZipGrow and Cultivatd) and I set out to flip the industry on its head by partnering with a wide range of companies in order to have a solution for every project. A year later and Cultivatd now has nearly 50 partnerships with some of the world’s leading ag-tech companies; from hydroponics, aquaponics, LED light manufacturers (etc) and we are working on projects around the world.
What is Cultivatd’s mission?
Our mission is to be at the center of the indoor ag industry connecting our clients, partners and funders to create successful vertical farm projects. Our business model is unique in that our primary role is to be a connector. We accomplish this by working with some of the best tech companies in the industry, with funders and by teaching people how to operate their indoor farms.
Why is it so important for AgTech companies to coexist and work together to improve the industry.
The world has a huge problem to solve in the coming decades; Growing more food, for more people, with less space and less resources. Localizing the supply chain is a global problem and AgTech companies are getting pretty good at solving some of these issues. We feel like there is some pretty good collaboration amongst our partnerships, although we do see quite a few of the larger ‘big names’ in our industry making some bold claims that I believe are detrimental for the industry. Large mergers, over-valuations etc hurt our industry and so we are focused instead on helping projects become profitable and successful by finding the best companies in the industry that are looking to help be part of the solution to recommend to our clients. There is a reason we work with the companies we do, and collaboration is one of those traits.
What are some of the biggest obstacles to entry for a person or company looking to start up an indoor, vertical or container farm?
Cultivatd was founded with the goal of addressing what we feel is the biggest issue in entering the vertical farming industry; knowledge. Our team has experience as growers, product manufacturers, start-up founders and we have seen the industry from many sides (investors, clients, growers etc) and we look to share that every time we work on a project. We’ve seen too many people buy the wrong technology and be stuck trying to make a business work because they only spoke to one company – they simply didn’t know what else was available.
Capital is also a big barrier to entry for many. We get hundreds of calls from people that want to impact their communities with vertical farms only to be put off by the true cost of a system (CAPEX) so we are always very clear with people early on. We also work with partners to help lower this barrier to entry as technology is now at a more profitable state than when our industry was just beginning.
How does your indoor farm brokerage work to help solve some of these start-up issues.
Our business model has a 3-pronged approach to solving the issues we see from our clients;
1. Brokerage: We help clients’ select the best technology for their project and walk them through which different AgTech solutions work with their budget, market and type of products they are looking to grow. While every agtech company can offer only their solution, we can offer almost 50 options.
2. FAAS: We are aware that operating a vertical farm is a much more complicated and involving venture than just growing food. That said, we launched a service called Farming As A Service where we will send experienced farmers to our clients locations to help manage the farm.
3. Funding: One of the biggest hurdles in our industry is the CAPEX cost of setting up a farm. We have partnered with groups like Contain.ag to help our clients get off the ground with funding. We are also in the midst of setting up our own capital fund (announcement coming soon) that is specifically geared towards our clients and their capital needs.
Where do you see indoor farming going over the next 10 years and how do we get there?
We think we are still at the beginning of this industry, even though our team is now 8 years in, and that the need for indoor farming is going to continue to grow exponentially over the next decade. The global food supply need is getting bigger while the ability to grow food outdoors is changing quickly. We see vertical farms solving a lot of the issues facing mankind in the next 10 years through a variety of technological advances (LEDs, automation, aquaculture, plant varieties (proteins, hops, medicinal etc), localization of supply chain etc) and we are proud to be at the center of it. The farm of the future is a hybrid model with multiple technologies and we are positioning ourselves to be core to the industry’s evolution.
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