Companies will collaborate in Unfold’s Innovation Partner Program to enhance GoodLeaf’s leafy greens production, particularly spinach, utilizing Unfold’s proprietary genetics and vertical growing expertise.
DAVIS, CA, Feb. 27, 2023 – Unfold, an industry-leading seed and digital solutions company advancing the vertical farming industry, andGoodLeaf Farms, Canada’s largest commercial vertical farm, today announced their partnership to commercialize premium lines of vertically-farmed spinach and other leafy greens through Unfold’s Innovation Partner Program. Chief Executive Officers of both companies will discuss the partnership tomorrow in a fireside chat at the 10th Annual Indoor Ag-Con in Las Vegas.
“We’re very excited to collaborate with GoodLeaf to unlock the potential for improved quality and yield for their indoor growing operations,” said Unfold CEO Sonia Lo. “As a former vertical farm operator, I understand first-hand the importance of seeds that are specifically developed for indoor growing. GoodLeaf is the largest vertical grower in Canada and has already demonstrated its ability to successfully grow leafy greens in large-scale, fully commercialized vertical farms. Now, through our partnership, we will accelerate their product evolution with seed developed and optimized for their specific environment.”
GoodLeaf is currently expanding across Canada, building new facilities in Montreal and Calgary to increase upon its current production out of Guelph, Ontario. With the completion of these two farms, GoodLeaf will produce over four million pounds of leafy greens annually, which is especially important for Canada where spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens remain amongst the country’s top imports. Both farms will be fully operational in late second quarter/early third quarter of 2023.
“Now that we have a solid foundation in place for our operations, it’s the perfect time to partner with Unfold,” said GoodLeaf President and CEO Barry Murchie. “Having the right seeds to ensure our success is crucial as we grow our operations throughout Canada and help the country lessen its dependence on imported produce. Unfold will help us make that goal possible.”
GoodLeaf and Unfold’s collaboration is part of Unfold’s Innovation Partner Program, which provides vertical farm leaders unique access to Unfold’s leading plant biology expertise, digital tools and germplasm. This access is a competitive advantage to vertical farmers who often lack proficiency in seed genetics and agronomics for indoor farming, and, as a result, are left to rely on suboptimal seeds that generate reduced quality and yields. Through industry collaborations such as this, Unfold is working to address these core challenges head on.
“All of our leafy greens are grown with passion, care and precision,” Murchie continued. “Our partnership with Unfold will help us accelerate the development of even more productive, premium-quality leafy greens. Our R&D team is excited to collaborate with their counterparts at Unfold to take our efforts a leap forward and develop new varieties with enhanced yield, taste, nutritional value and sustainability.”
In fact, both organizations have sustainability as a core value. Working together they aim to develop varieties of leafy greens, most notably spinach, that require less time and energy to produce while enhancing traits valued by consumers, like crunch, colour and taste. These new varieties will boost GoodLeaf’s produce output while lowering its production costs, allowing the Company to increase the accessibility of fresh vegetables closer to consumers’ homes as they continue to expand across Canada.
Tomorrow, February 28, 2023, Unfold Chief Operator Officer David Nothmann will be moderating a fireside chat featuring a conversation between Unfold CEO Sonia Lo and GoodLeaf CEO Barry Murchie. The fireside chat, entitled “Bringing the Knowledge Inside, Transforming Vertical Farming through Seed Genetics,” will take place from 9:15 to 10:00 am PST in the Expo Theater. For more information on the conference, please visit https://indoor.ag/conference-program/.
Unfold is accelerating the “seed to table” capabilities of vertical farming with an integrated offering of superior seeds, digital services, and agronomic insight. Based in Davis, California, Unfold’s mission is to create a world where the freshest, most nutritious, and most delicious produce is available to every person on the planet. For additional information about Unfold or to hear about potential career opportunities, please visit our website at unfold.ag.
Unfold’s Innovation Partner Program provides vertical farm leaders with access to Unfold’s leading plant biology expertise, digital tools and germplasm. Learn more about the program at unfold.ag/partner-program.
About GoodLeaf Farms
With a passion for delicious, nutrient-rich greens, GoodLeaf was founded in Halifax in 2011. Using innovative technology and leveraging multi-level vertical farming, GoodLeaf has created a controlled and efficient indoor farm that can grow fresh produce anywhere in the world, 365 days of the year. The system combines innovations in LED lighting with leading edge hydroponic techniques to produce sustainable, safe, pesticide-free, nutrient-dense leafy greens. GoodLeaf has ongoing collaboration programs with multiple universities in Canada, USA and Europe as well as several other partners in the commercial sector. GoodLeaf is a wholly owned subsidiary of TruLeaf Sustainable Agriculture.
As more consumers take an interest in the origin and sustainability of their food, they seek out agricultural companies dedicated to responsible and socially sustainable farming.
AllWell Greens is that company. Founded in New York by second-generation Taiwanese Americans, AllWell Greens specializes in growing heritage bok choy, Chinese broccoli, and other traditional Asian greens. The founders of AllWell Greens, spurred by their frustration with issues they experienced using traditional farming methods, spent two years researching, developing and testing farming methods in a 200 square foot indoor facility in downtown Manhattan.
It is in this urban setting that the AllWell Greens founders discovered that one of the main components of their sustainable farming success is the PHOTOBIO LED horticultural lighting system from Innovative Growers Equipment (IGE) Hydrofarm Commercial Division. PHOTOBIO is part of the IGE-Hydrofarm Commercial Division family of products, a company that specializes in commercial growing equipment such as grow lights, vertical grow racks, benches, air flow systems, and other products to support commercial grows from seed to harvest.
IGE-Hydrofarm Commercial Division offers a modular, high-efficiency LED lighting system designed for propagation and vegetative stages, especially for vertical grows. After four separate lighting trials, the AllWell Greens’ founders were thrilled with the results of the PHOTOBIO horticulture lights. Their greens were crisp, flavorful, and disease-free, and they were able to harvest two days faster than in any previous trial!
Impressed and confident with their results using PHOTOBIO LED lights, AllGreens’ founders took the next step of investing in a 5,000 square foot growing facility in the heart of Queens, NY. This space will allow AllWell Greens to scale up their agricultural operations and bring their heritage greens to market.
This new AllWell Greens facility is equipped with over 1500 PHOTOBIO lights on vertical grow racks. The PHOTOBIO lighting system exposes the crops to the perfect amount of light needed to optimize photosynthesis, resulting in higher-quality greens.
The PHOTOBIO lights are a game-changer for AllWell Greens. “We always knew that light was an important factor in growing greens, but I don’t think we anticipated the impact it would have on grow time and ultimately profitability,” explains John Cari, one of the company’s founders. “The PHOTOBIO lighting is so precise that we reduced our grow time by two days, improved our yields and significantly reduced our energy costs.”
Chris Mayer for IGE – Hydrofarm Commercial Division expressed “We are proud to partner with AllWell Greens on this project. Their dedication to sustainability and responsibility is inspiring, and we are honored to be a part of their journey. We look forward to continuing our partnership and supporting them in their efforts to revolutionize the Asian produce industry.”
Visit the Hydrofarm booth at the upcoming February 27-28, 2023 edition of Indoor Ag-Con in booth 707 and more about IGE-Hydrofarm Commercial Division here.
Indoor Ag-Con 2023 Exhibitor & Sponsor Kekkilä-BVBdiscusses how the performance of substrates is one of the factors that determine the success of your cultivation. To get the best out of your leafy greens, it’s crucial to create an optimal environment for the plant’s roots to develop. Many factors work together to determine if a root zone is suitable. For example, we should take physical characteristics like pore size into account. However, factors like microbial activity within the substrate and buffers for pH and nutrients also play a big role in the happiness of your crop’s roots.
Walmart recently announced a big bang in the US grocery trade landscape: its investment in vertical farming start-up Plenty. With this, the retail giant is taking a step toward making high-quality, pesticide-free produce more accessible and affordable for the consumer.
What do they know that you don’t? Why should every grocer be scouting for vertical farming partners now and not later?
The salad and fresh herb markets are growing
Size does matter, and the size of the market for salad and leafy greens in the U.S. and Canada is approximately $15 billion and growing. And it will continue to grow with an estimated CAGR of 8.2% from 2021 to 2028.
Similar growth is expected in the spice and herb market where in North America alone, it is projected to grow at a CAGR 7.2% (2020 to 2025).
That is a lot of money available for leafy greens, herbs, and spices if you can guarantee your yield and deliveries.
But therein lies the problem.
The COVID pandemic has shown us that the logistics involved in food transportation are extremely susceptible to disruption; perishable products in particular cannot be stored for long before the quality deteriorates to such an extent that they are no longer fit for sale.
The majority of the lettuces sold in North America are grown in California. So, if you buy a packaged lettuce in New York, it has probably already traveled 3000 miles. Any disruptions to this journey along the way only serve to weaken the quality of the product and its availability to the end customer.
In fact, over the past year, packaged leafy greens have been one of the top items missing from grocery shelves due to logistics and transportation challenges.
Vertical farming systems like Netled’s proprietary system Vera can ensure the availability of products due to their proximity to the store. A Vera system requires very little space and is significantly more efficient and reliable than traditional agricultural systems.
Vera systems produce:
5 times more crops per comparable growing area
15 times more per surface area compared to single-level high-efficiency year-round greenhouse growing.
100 times more crops per surface area compared to the yield for a normal single season in open-field agriculture.
Vertical farming systems also remove the risks that other forms of agriculture are susceptible to such as unpredictable weather, disease, and pests.
The more stages there are in the food processing and distribution, the higher the chance of some form of contamination.
Fewer human contact points, precise control over irrigation, and the growing process result in less risk of contamination.
Every year in North America, 48 million foodborne illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3000 deaths are recorded. (CDC, 2013).
Bacteria and pathogen contamination in the production line almost always originates from the irrigation water used. Further risk of contamination comes from the washing of field-grown or greenhouse products after they are harvested.
Outdoor farming and most of the greenhouses perform triple-wash on the harvested plants in order to mitigate the contamination risk, as a post-harvest process.
Vera vertical farming systems are encapsulated in a precisely controlled environment where there is no contamination from external sources such as pests, fungi, or bacteria.
The Vera system uses 95% less fresh water for irrigation than open-field agriculture and the water it uses is captured from the plant respiration, purified, and fed back into the system ensuring no possibility of external contamination. The plants are not touched by humans during the growing process and therefore do not need to be washed after harvesting.
Harvesting and packaging can even be automated with robotics so that there is no physical contact with the plant at all.
All this automation not only ensures the minimum possible amount of contamination, but it also reduces labor costs.
Vera vertical farming systems are less labor intensive in both the growing and harvesting processes. The extremely high level of automation in irrigation, plant spacing, nutrient delivery, and lighting requires less labor resources. Harvesting and packing can also be automated to a high level with the help of AI and robotics, and if the vertical farm is situated in close proximity to the store, logistic, and transportation costs are also reduced dramatically.
Awareness and demand for healthy plant-based foods is growing. Salads are a good source of fiber, iron, calcium, potassium plus vitamins A, K, C, and E.
There are many factors that can affect the quality of the end product, not only in the processing stages of production, but also in the growing stage. Open-field growing is particularly susceptible to risk factors: extreme weather events such as torrential rain and drought, nutrient depletion and salination of the soil and the chemical fertilizers used to attempt to redress the balance, water infiltration rates, pesticides, herbicides, and chemical spraying to name a few.
Vertical farming systems operate in a precisely controlled environment where every last detail is planned, monitored, and controlled from seed to retail. There are no rainy days, no hot days, no pests or chemicals – everything is always just right
The Vera system is programmed according to the particular plant and the variables are adjusted so that it can grow to its own genetic maximum. This results in the highest possible quality with guaranteed results no matter what time of year or whatever the weather.
In case you’d like to learn more about your potential future vertical farming partner, come and meet Netled CEO Niko Kivioja and the rest of the team at Indoor AgCon booth 1023!
‘It’s An Exciting Time To Be In the Business Of Indoor Farming’
Indoor Ag-Con is excited to announce that BrightFarms CEO Steve Platt and Cox EnterprisesVP Steven Bradley will kick-off the February 28 – March 1, 2022 edition of Indoor Ag-Con with the opening morning keynote address. Platt and Bradley will share how BrightFarms and Cox are working together to transform the indoor farming industry – further strengthening its position as a sustainable platform for the future.
Ahead of his upcoming keynote, we had the chance to catch up with Steve to hear more about BrightFarms’ future plans and goals in this month’s CEO Q&A.
Cox Enterprises, which had a majority stake in your company since 2020, acquired BrightFarms earlier this year as part of its stated mission to build a healthier, more sustainable future. What attracted Cox to Bright Farms initially?
The mission of Cox Cleantech aligns with BrightFarms’ mission to improve the health of Americans and the planet with fresher, sustainably grown local food. BrightFarms has been a leader in indoor farming since 2013, building out a decentralized network of local farms. Our demonstrated ability to replicate our model while developing deep partnerships with retailers was unique to the indoor farming industry. Since investing in 2018, Cox has been a fantastic partner and we’re now proud to be a fully owned subsidiary of the company.
We read that BrightFarms has expansion plans designed to bring local indoor leafy greens to more than 2/3 of the US by 2025. Can you share more about how you hope to achieve this goal?
We’re expanding our footprint and capacity with much larger farms ― 10-40-acre greenhouses that can serve as a complete salad category solution for retailers. We predict that in 10 years, 50% of leafy greens nationwide will be sourced from indoor farms, and BrightFarms will be a big part of that growth. We’re poised for massive growth in the coming years as we scale across the country. It’s an exciting time to be in the business of indoor farming.
What differentiates BrightFarms’ growing methods and services from others in the space?
We have a proven, scalable model and are developing proprietary technology, called BrightOS, to support everything we do — from growing the plants themselves, to staying on top of food safety and leveraging greenhouse supply and retailer demand. Our experience and success in the market sets us apart from many other indoor farming companies still establishing their technology, footprint, or go-to-market strategy. We’re also the first company to be backed by a blue-chip company, Cox Enterprises, that is wholly supportive of our model and growth.
This year, BrightFarms also announced larger investments in R&D including the creation of a new R&D hub, BrightLabs. Could you share a little about why you created it and what the BrightLabs team is working on?
In 2021, we brought on our VP of Agriculture & Science, Dr. Matt Lingard, who heads up our R&D and food safety programs. Matt is building a team that will focus on delivering the highest quality complete salad program in the industry.
For more information on BrightFarms, visit the company website. And, register today to attend the 2022 edition of Indoor Ag-Con to hear more from Steve about the company’s exciting plans!
Sensei Ag CEO Sonia Lo will lead the Indoor Ag-Con keynote presentation, “Improving Human Wellness One Farm At A Time,” on Monday, October 4, 2021 from 11:30 am – 12:20 pm. A headliner event at the October 4-5, 2021 edition at the Hilton Orlando, Lo’s discussion will focus on Sensei Ag’s form factor agnostic approach to building and expanding indoor farms.
Tapped to head Sensei Ag in 2020, Sonia brings more than 32 years of combined agriculture, technology and business experience to her leadership role. Ahead of her October keynote, we had the chance to talk to Sonia about her company’s mission, funding insights, thoughts on how we value our industry and more.
Sonia, please share with our audience some of your insights into funding in the controlled environment agriculture industry. You’ve stated in the past that venture capital funding alone is not enough to win the day as it relates to indoor vertical farming. Rather, you’ve posited that when/if large, commercial farms are in some way “tied” to the energy grid, municipal bonds would come into play as a viable funding vehicle for these new operations. Can you elaborate on that further?
Venture capital is indeed an important source of funding for the economy, and I am by no means downplaying the role of the VC investor. I myself have run my own investment fund which has invested over $150 million in growth stage companies. Nevertheless, we often see venture capital looking to invest in companies that:
1) Are already well on their way to becoming profitable
2) Have very sophisticated fundraising teams or
3) Have deep relationships already in place with the venture or private equity communities.
Smaller, developing indoor farming companies as well as large commercial farms are less likely to have these connections than say a traditional tech company. It would be more likely that they would be candidates for municipal bonds or green bonds that would be accompanied by much lower interest rates and not tied to earn outs and profitability but instead to the greater good of society.
This brings me to the concept then of how do we value our industry? If we can’t properly value indoor agriculture, then neither banks nor venture capital will be able to provide adequate funding to spur our growth. You may have heard me say this in prior publications, but my true hope is that by developing a collective body of knowledge on indoor growing, financial institutions, public and private, will be able to risk asses our businesses, value them long term and provide the necessary funding to spur growth, technology and innovation for our industry. At Sensei Ag, we are positioning ourselves to be one of the key aggregators and generators of such data, moving our industry forward for all who are looking to make a difference in the ability to feed our growing global population healthy, nutritious food.
Sensei Ag has stated being a “form factor agnostic” grower is the goal. When you look to the mix of greenhouse, indoor farm, open field and any other growing environment, tell us how varied grow form factors and crop mixes (leafy greens and fruiting crops) will provide variety and diversity among Sensei Ag’s offerings to your customers?
Being form factor agnostic is core to Sensei Ag’s business model and growth plan. We are indoor growers – not just greenhouse growers, not just vertical farm growers. With that said, it’s not just about the types of leafy greens and other produce we will be able to grow using different form factors, but also the ability to venture into new regions of the globe, areas that were traditionally considered food deserts but through one form factor or another can now become food oases.
At our greenhouses on Lana’i, we currently grow hydroponically and produce a variety of exceptional leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and other delicious produce. We are regularly trying out new varieties of cultivars and look forward to introducing even more delicious produce to Hawaii.
This is now the second indoor agriculture company for which you are serving in the important role of CEO. What attracted you to join Sensei Ag and to the company’s overall mission?
When I began by career over thirty years ago with a Stanford degree in political science and math, agriculture was definitely not where I imagined myself down the line. That said, after spending the majority of my career in finance and tech, I can truly say that I am the happiest growing local, nutritious food for others. I joined Sensei Ag last April for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spearhead a company developing science focused on human wellness from food and agriculture systems. As CEO, I am very honored to lead an exceptionally talented team of professionals who together share one vision and that is to increase adoption of indoor agricultural production globally.
Of course complicating this all was no doubt joining a company right in the heart of a global pandemic. Much of our team, with the exception of our farming team on Lana’i, spent the past year working over Zoom. We are only now finally getting a chance to collaborate and spend time in person – and of course seeing more than the top halves of our bodies!
Nevertheless, the journey thus far has been incredible. I’ve never been known to take the straight and narrow path. Ask anyone about the twisted, curvy roads on Lana’i. Yet, in my mind, there’s never been a more crucial time in our world’s history to address global food insecurity, to encourage and develop new means of promoting health and wellness and to heal and nourish our planet. I look forward to the adventure that lies ahead.
Indoor Ag-Con 2021 Exhibitor ZipGrow has expanded its footprint, moving from leased premises to its own building at the corner of Cumberland and Seventh Street in Cornwall, Ontario Canada. The new building more than doubles the amount of space available to the manufacturer of the world’s most installed vertical hydroponic equipment.
“Demand for our products continues to soar,” says Eric Lang, President of ZipGrow. “The new building allows us to be more efficient while at the same time giving us room to grow in the future.”
Growth is on the menu at ZipGrow, with the company launching an innovative partnership with Sodexo to introduce sustainable growing systems to facilities throughout Canada and the United States.
“Having been installed throughout the world over the past decade, our system enables growers, both big and small, to access fresh produce no matter where they are located”, explains Mr. Lang. “We are excited to move ahead with this new partnership with Sodexo. Together we will be able to introduce sustainable food to Sodexo locations throughout North America.”
ZipGrow technology is a patented system that utilizes both hydroponic growing systems and vertical planes to maximize production volume within a small footprint. Primarily growing leafy greens such as lettuce and kale, along with herbs and small fruiting crops such as strawberries, ZipGrow systems will be installed in Sodexo locations including educational institutions, conference facilities, and corporate food service centres.
“This new partnership with ZipGrow not only enables us to reduce our carbon emissions of distance traveled for food source, onsite food waste, and packaging requirements, but also to introduce innovative technology to our facilities and team members”, said Normand St-Gelais, Director of Corporate Responsibility, Sodexo Canada.
ZipGrow is an international leader in indoor, vertical farming technology. The company’s flagship product, the ZipGrow Tower, is a core component of many of the world’s most innovative farms; from indoor hydroponic warehouses to vertical aquaponic greenhouses and high-density container farms
On March 11, 2021 two international industry leaders, Sodexoand ZipGrow Inc., launched a first of its kind partnership to develop more sustainable local food chains throughout North America.
Sodexo, world leader in Quality of Life Services, has joined forces with ZipGrow Inc., the manufacturer of the world’s most installed vertical hydroponic equipment. Together they wll develop a unique program to introduce sustainable growing systems to facilities throughout Canada and the United States of America.
Introducing Innovative Technology
One of Sodexo’s primary goals is to ensure all our operations are industry leading from a sustainability perspective. “This new partnership with ZipGrow Inc. not only enables us to reduce our carbon emissions of distance traveled for food source, onsite food waste, and packaging requirements, but also to introduce innovative technology to our facilities and team members”, said Normand St-Gelais, Director of Corporate Responsibility, Sodexo Canada.
ZipGrow Systems To Be Installed At Sodexo Locations
ZipGrow™ technology is a patented system that utilizes both hydroponic growing systems and vertical planes to maximize production volume within a small footprint. Primarily growing leafy greens such as lettuce and kale, along with herbs and small fruiting crops such as strawberries, ZipGrow systems will be installed in Sodexo locations including educational institutions, conference facilities, and corporate food service centres.
“Having been installed throughout the world over the past decade, our system enables growers, both big and small, to access fresh produce no matter where they are located”, explains Eric Lang, President of ZipGrow Inc. “We are excited to move ahead with this new partnership with Sodexo. Together we will be able to introduce sustainable food to Sodexo locations throughout North America.”
“As a Chef, we are always looking for ways to introduce the freshest possible produce to our kitchens”, said Chef Davide Del Brocco, Sustainability Manager, Sodexo Canada. “By having a grow system on site, we can now not only customize our produce to meet our upcoming needs, but we can also now harvest fresh greens and use them that same day.”
“Having like-minded partners like ZipGrow who understand what is important to us and who are aligned with our values and goals is crucial in working together for a Better Tomorrow.” said Andrea Cantin, Corporate Social Responsibility Coordinator, Sodexo Canada. With Sodexo and ZipGrow Inc. both having company values strongly embedded in sustainability, this new partnership will see this innovative agriculture technology being introduced to multiple Sodexo facilities in Canada and the US.
Sodexo delivers a wide range of customized solutions, designed to optimize work and living environments. The company has been providing food and facilities management services in Canada for over 40 years, with a focus on enhancing safety, work process and well-being. A market leader in Canada, Sodexo has been recognized as a top employer for the past seven consecutive years. Sodexo is proud to have created the Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation, an independent charitable organization that has raised over $3 million to fight hunger and donated more than one million meals to at-risk youth across Canada since 2007. It is included in the CAC 40, FTSE 4 Good and DJSI indices.
Key figures (as November 2020)
1st in its sector in both the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) and the 2020 SAM sustainability yearbook
100 million consumers served daily
About ZipGrow Inc.
ZipGrow Inc. is an international leader in indoor, vertical farming technology. Our flagship product, the ZipGrow™ Tower, is a core component of many of the world’s most innovative farms; from indoor hydroponic warehouses to vertical aquaponic greenhouses and and high-density container farms. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org or at 1-855-ZIPGROW.
Indoor Ag-Con ExhibitorOasis Grower Solutions introduces Fortify, a liquid nutrient supplement, designed to optimize the growth performance and increase harvest weights while reducing production time by up to 20%.Fortify is an amino acid based nutrient supplement developed through extensive research and trials. Use of Fortify improves nutrient uptake and reduces stress at all stages of production. Fortify can be applied to leafy greens (lettuce, herbs, and micro greens) produced using Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), Deep or Shallow water culture and aeroponic culture.Fortify is best applied using a dosing system in conjunction with a complete fertilizer program.“Fortify is a way for growers to maximize the utilization of their production space. Growers want as many turns as possible.” said Bill Riffey, Global Director of Oasis Grower Solutions. When used as a nutrient supplement, Fortify has the potential of reducing the production time providing up to one additional crop cycle annually.”
Oasis Grower Solutions provides propagation products and post-harvest care solutions for greenhouse produced ornamental and food crops. Oasis® Grower Solutions products include, plant propagation Rootcubes®, Terra Plug, Fertiss®, Horticubes®, Oasis® HydroPRO System, Hydroponic Fertilizer, Soax® wetting agent, disease control and greenhouse cleaners.
For more information about Oasis Grower Solutions and their products, contact Bill Riffey at WRiffey@smithersoasis.com or visit http://new.oasisgrowersolutions.com/fortify/.
Smithers-Oasis’ global expertise of the plant and flower business stretches from propagation to presentation. With locations in 20 countries and resources around the world, Smithers-Oasis manufactures floral foam products, postharvest products, growing media and flower arranging supplies for the floriculture industry. OASIS® and Floralife® are two of the company’s most recognized brands founded in 1954 and 1938, respectively. With more than 60 years of experience with foaming technology, Smithers-Oasis also develops specialty foams for a wide variety of applications including packaging, impression, absorption and molding. The company’s driving purpose is “to help people express and experience emotion by adding value to flowers and plants.” Smithers-Oasis, a privately owned company, is headquartered in Kent, Ohio, USA.
When Jake Counne established Backyard Fresh Farms as an incubator in 2016, he knew that most large-scale vertical farming operations were large-scale financial disappointments.
So rather than attempting to patch up the prevailing model, he and his team chose to build something new from the ground up. “Other start-ups had tried scaling their operations with antiquated greenhouse practices,” he says. “We realized that to solve the massive labor and energy problems that persist with indoor vertical farming. We needed to look to other industries that had mastered how to scale.”
That vision, and several years of persistent innovation, came to fruition in 2019 when Counne announced he would transplant the successful pilot farm—now renamed Wilder Fields—into a full-scale commercial vertical farm. It is currently under construction in an abandoned Super Target store, with an uninterrupted expanse of three acres under its roof in Calumet City, just outside Chicago.
Wilder Fields is designed to supply supermarkets and restaurants in the Chicago metro trade area,. It is scheduled to sell its first produce in the spring of 2021. It will provide fresh produce to those living in nearby food deserts in Illinois and Northwest Indiana. In this Q & A with Jake Counne, Indoor Ag-Con will share more Jake’s vision and plans for the future.
According to an Artemis survey, only 27 percent of indoor vertical farms are profitable despite attracting $2.23 billion in investments in 2018. Why do you think a small start-up like Wilder Fields can succeed where so many have yet to earn a profit?
We started four years ago by investing our own resources. We were also working on a very limited scale in a small incubator space. I think those constraints pushed us to be more discerning about what we should tackle first. In that time, we developed an array of proprietary software and hardware, many of which have patents pending. And we refined a new paradigm for vertical farming, moving from the greenhouse model to lean manufacturing.
We also had the good fortune of starting up just as many first-wave indoor farms were closing down. So we looked at those case studies to understand what went wrong. And, what they could have done differently—what was needed to succeed. In fact, the founder of one of those first-wave farms now serves on our advisory board and really helped us identify the right blend of automation and labor.
With traditional vertical farming, the bigger you get, the more your labor costs increase. It seemed to us that the first generation of large-scale commercial vertical farms thought they could simply scale-up labor as they grew.
But we realized that operational excellence and efficiencies are essential to marry growth and profitability. It’s very hard to control a wide variety of factors using a 100 percent human workforce; for the most part, our industry has realized we need to recalibrate and find ways to automate.
So automation solves the problem? It’s not as simple as that.
Now the problem that the pendulum has swung a little too far in the other direction. The industry is almost hyper-focused on automation—as if automation is the answer to all of vertical farming’s problems. It’s not. Remember when Elon Musk tried using too much automation to produce the Model 3? I believe he called his big mistake “excessive automation” and concluded that humans are underrated.
We believe well-run vertical farms, and the most profitable ones, will achieve the right balance of human labor and automation. And that’s been our laser-focused goal from day one—to bring down labor costs in an intelligent way, in order to make vertical farming economically sustainable.
We also reduced costs by repurposing an existing structure rather than building a new one. We located a vacant, 135,000-square-foot Super Target in the Chicago suburb of Calumet City. What better way to farm sustainably than to build our farm in a sustainable way? Along with City leaders, we think we can help revitalize the depressed retail corridor where it is located.
To my knowledge, converting a big box space to an indoor vertical farm has never been done before. So we also are creating a blueprint for how to impart new life to empty, expansive buildings.
We also will provide opportunities for upwardly mobile jobs and environmentally sound innovations, and produce food that promotes community health.
Vertical farming is a fairly new development. How does it fit into the history of modern agriculture?
I make an analogy with the automobile industry. Field agriculture is sort of like the combustion engine. It came first and was easy to scale up, making it available to more and more people. There were obvious downsides to it, but soon the whole world was using the combustion engine, so we kept churning them out.
But as the detrimental effects began to accumulate, we started asking ourselves how to reduce the negative impact. That’s when the auto industry came up with hybrid cars—they’re the greenhouses in this analogy—and while they were certainly a less bad solution, they weren’t really the solution.
And now we have the fully electric car and it has started outperforming combustion engines on many different levels—just as indoor vertical farming is now beginning to outperform field agriculture
Today’s business mantra holds that the more you automate, the more efficient you become. So why is vertical farming any different?
There are certain efficiencies that don’t require specialized robotics, especially if these tasks can be accomplished in other ways that sustain quality and reduce costs. For example, instead of our workers going among the plants to tend them, the plants come to the workers in assembly-line fashion that requires fewer harvesters. So it’s always a balance between the investment in specialized machinery and the cost of the labor that it will eliminate.
And while there’s definitely room for automation, it doesn’t always require new specialized robotics. In our industry, plenty of mature automation already exists that can be used to good effect, such as automated transplanting and automated seeding: both employ proven, decades-old technology.
So when I see some other start-ups trying to reinvent these processes, it’s hard to understand. They design and build new, expensive equipment—something possible with an unlimited budget—but in fact, a more affordable, simple solution already is available.
Start-up costs are notoriously difficult to finance. How were you able to get off the ground? What advice would you have for others in the industry?
There’s no easy way to bootstrap from a small start-up to a large scale without that big infusion of capital. You’ve got to decide early on if you should try to secure venture capital from institutional folks or search out more, smaller checks from friends and family and accredited investors.
As I see it, venture capitalists look to the founders’ background and education more than a business model that needs to be tested. If you don’t have that pedigree out of the gate, it’s an uphill battle.
We chose to take a different path, one that has proven successful for me in the past. It’s one where I led a group of investors who acquired overlooked residential properties on Chicago’s South Side. We brought stability to neighborhoods and now manage a large portfolio of quality rental properties. There was no white paper when we embarked on that venture, but we shared a vision for revitalizing good housing stock.
I also tell people to explore equipment financing, which thanks to the cannabis industry has opened up more and more. It’s definitely possible to finance some of this equipment. That seems to be a good route as well.
How will vertical farming impact the types of the crops you grow?
Wilder Fields grows and will continue to grow a wonderful variety of leafy greens. Many will be new to people because they can’t be efficiently raised in a field. So we are building our product line around flavor and texture as opposed to supply-chain hardiness.
But remember, the indoor vertical farming industry is in its very early days. Soon we will have a whole new frontier of applications and crops to grow. Especially now that certain companies are offering indoor-specific seeds. We’ve seen this movie before. When greenhouse-style vertical farms first came on the scene, they used seeds that were really bred for the field. They were doing okay. But, as soon as seeds were bred specifically for that greenhouse environment, yield and quality shot through the roof.
Now that we’re on the cusp of having specialized seeds bred specifically for our purposes, I think we’re going to see that same leap in yield and quality as well.
Of course, your initial planning could not have factored in a global pandemic and ailing economy. How have the ramifications of COVID-19 affected Wilder Fields, and your industry at large?
This is a time for us to champion the benefits of indoor agriculture because vertical farming is doing really well. Any farms primarily serving restaurants obviously had a problem. Companies that pivoted away from restaurants have been able to reach consumers more than ever. They’re capitalizing on their indoor-grown—and therefore much cleaner—product.
Supermarkets are our primary market. With people cooking more at home and looking for fresher and healthier choices, they’re eating more leafy greens. This is another positive phenomenon.
The success of your model relies heavily on your proprietary technology. Do you have any plans to eventually license your innovations—to make them available to others, for a fee?
That’s a question we’ve been asked a lot, not only from our industry but also from the cannabis industry. We may revisit that opportunity in the future, but it’s not something we’re immediately considering.
Here’s why. When I first entered the industry in 2016, I noticed there were so many consultants. Many people were licensing technology, but none of them were actually using that technology to grow leafy greens at scale. They’re like the folks who sell the pickaxes and the shovels instead of mining the gold.
My perspective is, “You’ve got to venture into the mine to know what sort of shovel and pickaxe you need”; in other words, that’s how to understand what models to create for logistics and ergonomics and what tools are needed to make them work. I did not want our company to be one of those that are just sort of camping outside the mine and hawking its wares.
I think the only way we can develop a solution that’s worth its weight is operating our own technology and equipment at scale. And I haven’t seen anybody do that yet. Is it possible that we license our technology somewhere down the road once we’ve actually proven it out at scale? Maybe; but it’s not part of our business model right now.
So, along those lines, when will Wilder Fields deliver your first produce—grown in your first full-scale commercial vertical farm—to grocers in metro Chicago?
We have committed to the end of the first quarter of next year: March, 2021. In addition to this Indoor Ag-Con Q & A with Jake Counne, you can learn more about Wilder Fields visit the company website