Skip to main content

Tag: sustainability

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.

Innovating for Tomorrow: Good Natured Highlights Sustainable Packaging Trend

 

good natured Products Inc. (Indoor Ag-Con 2024 Booth #1323) has been making bio-based packaging since 2006 and has witnessed transformative changes in packaging expectations, driven by a deepening commitment to sustainability and a keen response to regulatory and consumer demands. The landscape is changing fast, and companies are trying to make sense of what’s best for their business and the environment. Sometimes, this complexity leads to confusion, and when people are confused, they might hesitate to act. Part of the company’s approach is to provide simplified, actionable insights to make it as easy as possible to make the switch to sustainable packaging.

Key trends to Watch:

  1. Brand Loyalty through Sustainability: Businesses are seeing sustainable packaging as more than an environmental choice—it’s a brand builder. With a significant majority of consumers favoring eco-conscious packaging, adopting recyclable, compostable, and reusable options is becoming a strategic priority for companies that want to stay ahead.
  2. Clarity is King: Transparent packaging isn’t just aesthetically pleasing; it’s a trust builder, offering consumers a clear view of the product, assuring them of its freshness and quality—a critical decision factor in today’s market.
  3. Navigating Regulatory Shifts: The dynamic regulatory environment demands agility and foresight. Collaborating with packaging experts can help businesses stay compliant and help avoid the pitfalls of investing in a packaging platform that may be at risk of regulation in the coming years.
  4. Focus on Freshness and Safety: A combination of materials, closures and design choices can have an impact on enhancing product longevity and safety, both of which are crucial in minimizing waste and boosting consumer confidence.
  5. Material Simplification: Optimizing materials for better recycling and composting is becoming a key topic to reducing environmental impact and promoting a circular economy in packaging. Although the EU has been moving faster on this front, similar approaches are expected to come to North America in the coming years.

As the agri-food sector evolves, so does its approach to sustainability, extending beyond packaging to encompass all aspects of operation, from water conservation to energy efficiency. Indoor Ag-Con provides a platform to explore these innovations, underscoring the industry’s commitment to sustainable practices.

We’re eager to engage with the forward-thinking community at Indoor Ag-Con, sharing insights and exploring sustainable packaging solutions that align with broader environmental goals,” remarks Paul Antoniadis, CEO of good natured®. “Sustainability is a journey, and every step, no matter how small, is part of our collective path toward environmental change, and from our experience your customers will reward your efforts.”

Visit good natured Products Inc. at Indoor Ag-Con to delve into these trends and discover how integrating sustainable packaging into your business can create value and a positive environmental impact.

Navigating CEA Food Safety: Candid Q&A With Ceres Certifications, International President

Join us for a candid conversation with Dr. Karl Kolb, President of Ceres Certifications, International, and Ceres University, as he sheds light on the essentials of food safety in controlled environment agriculture (CEA). Ahead of his CEA Food Safety Workshop at the March 2024 edition of Indoor Ag-Con, Dr. Kolb delves into the practical aspects of GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) standards, addressing common misconceptions. From understanding the risk-based approach in CEA to incorporating technology into safety measures, this Q&A provides straightforward insights. Dr. Kolb also offers pragmatic advice on how CEA operators can balance sustainability with the need for robust food safety.

How does the application of GFSI standards benefit controlled environment agriculture (CEA) operations, and what specific challenges or considerations should CEA operators be aware of when seeking food safety certification for their facilities?

Let me start by saying GFSI food safety standards are largely misunderstood across the entire food industry.  From their development, what they represent and how they are applied. It may sound unusual but if the owners and operators of food operations understood them, they would place them as their top priority in their daily schedule.  The leaders would not go home at night nor would any of their employees until every item in their food safety plan was checked, doublechecked and rechecked.

Food Safety Certification and GFSI StandardsThere are so many unique ways a GFSI or any “certificated” (non-GFSI) food safety standard benefits the operator. Defining “Operator” is anyone directly involved in any aspect of the food operation. From those who sell inputs such as seed, to those who plant the seed, those who irrigate, control watering, clean and sanitize, pull maintenance, process or pack, sell and ship the finished product — they are all operators.

Literally the information on food safety programs and their attributes would fill the Library of Congress.  And the quality systems that are used to apply the “standard” as we say, would fill a second Library of Congress.  Let me be clear, the application of a GFSI or food safety standard is the same across the board, to any food safety operation, CEA or the larger food industry. That statement scares CEA operators. CEA operators, like organic growers or small farmers, spend their life differentiating themselves from their counterparts.  Each one, and rightfully so believes and feels in their heart that they are uniquely different and performing the most important service to the public.  I cannot disagree with any of this because each operator is doing a phenomenal service to the largely unknowing public.

CEA operators should not fear the application of the GFSI standard. If, and that is a big if to be discussed later, it is applied correctly the CEA operator would intuitively know how greatly it benefits them. In short, each standard in a food safety scheme (Schemes are GFSI programs such as SQF, PGFS and HACCP to name a few.) is based on one of three or all three tenants; science, regulatory codes, and industry norms.  While there are variations of the GFSI schemes to accommodate the differences in some farming activities such as greenhouse farming by example, largely all food safety schemes inherently possess the same core requirements.  It’s how they are applied that makes the difference in each different operation.

Are there specialized considerations for food safety in CEA that may differ from traditional agriculture, and if so, how can operators navigate these nuances?

Herein is the one of my favorite topics about the application of the standard.  It is risk based.  In other words, each standard is applied the same but differently, based on a risk analysis. No matter what part of the food industry the operation is working in, the standard is the same.  This fact alone is one of the particular strengths of the GFSI system. The “specialized considerations” mentioned in your question are invoked at the time the auditor asks the question from the standard. Navigating these nuances as you stated are not what most people believe – for sure it’s not fancy footwork during an audit or attractive paperwork.  By example, I write some of the most boring, grammatically incorrect, ugly looking programs and policies, reports and logs ever.  Pretty and poetic is great but it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a meaningful robust program, “under the hood”, so to speak.

CEA Food SafetyThe “navigation” begins at the beginning (There is a song by Artie Shaw with a similar name referring to a dance or relationship from the 1920s that may have some carryover when applying the standard?) and thrives throughout the program and over time. It is the analysis of the particular “clause” in a food safety standard – this analysis begins with a complete understanding of what the clause is asking specifically and how it is intended to be applied.  Remember I spoke earlier about how a standard or clause is built? Science, regulatory and industry norms? A short explanation of Risk Analysis is in order to understand the next piece.  A risk analysis is a process which entails identifying risk, defining uncertainty, completing analysis models and implementing solutions.

Now I must back up a bit.  Life is about backing up and moving forward.  Just like learning from an audit.  The risk analysis is where the CEA operator differs from the larger industry and even his co-operators down the street. There is a yin and yang relationship between the auditor and the operator.  The auditor applies a process involving the standard or clause.  The auditor understands the standard and clause. He looks to the operator as the expert on the ground to explain how the operator applied the principles of risk analysis to the standard and what the operator’s solution or program properly answers the clause.

I’m sure by now the questions of how CEA differs from the larger industry and its fellow brethren are becoming clear.

Two absolutes must be respected in this dance (somehow credit Artie) or the yin and yang relationship.  1) The auditor must know his job and understand his or her role in the audit, 2) The operator must know his or her job of performing a risk analysis and explaining it to the auditor. That is the strength and difference CEA operators are looking for in GFSI audits.  However, finding #1 and #2 is like finding “hen’s teeth”. So sadly, audits become a checklist affair,  almost worthless and get a bad rap.

As a leader of a food safety certifying body, you’ve likely encountered various compliance issues.  What are some common misconceptions or overlooked aspects related to food safety that you believe CEA operators should be more aware of to improve the safety of their produce?

Not sure if I’m a leader but more of a learner or supporter.  We are largely a body of awesome women who I absolutely (adore) believe are the strength of this organization.  I have chosen smart, educated, dedicated and loyal women who don’t need to be told what to do or how to do it.

Our challenge is many-fold. It involves resources.  Time, money, training, staff needs and lastly, but first, compliance.

cEA Food safety 3My academic background is about quality.  Quality is defined properly, partially by the ISO system and my experience, “Quality standards are sets of good manufacturing practices (“Best Practices”), methods, systems, requirements, and or specifications established by science, regulators and industry to help operators achieve and demonstrate consistent production and product qualities.” Do not confuse quality with quality.  We are not talking about quality like the organoleptic head of lettuce qualities, although quality systems do define this commodity standard.  Quality is all about consistency.

A great and successful example is McDonalds.  Sadly, my default menu on too many occasions. They grew fast and successfully by using a quality model. The bros McDonald correctly set their goal as fast, good, cheap and consistent burgers across the land.  It’s not that the burgers are the best ever (sorry bros however the fish sandwich is the best) but everything from the sandwich itself to the service is consistently the same.  Go anywhere and the McDonalds experience is not 100% every time, listen well, it’s the same experience every time. Manufacturing excellence is achieved through consistency. And to those who are manufacturers we know that it’s not 100% that is achieved every time but the 90% mark is where quality is achieved.

Compliance at the operator level is all about consistency.  A food safety program cannot run at 100%, but it can run properly at 90% and achieve science, regulatory and industry expectations. The challenge of both myself as a certification body and that of the operator is keeping up and applying the science, regulations and industry expectations in auditors and operators as they work though (think root cause analysis) risk analysis solutions.

The audit is not meant to be a checklist drill but the yin and yang of auditor and operator.

As technology continues to play a significant role in CEA, how do advancements in automation and data-driven systems impact food safety protocols, and what advice do you have for growers looking to integrate these technologies while maintaining a strong food safety program?

Automation should serve the food safety program, not drive, define or prescribe it.  I once asked a very wise and experienced individual with a very large certifying body how he conducted audits. This gentleman told me he would take a blank yellow pad and walk into a food plant and begin asking questions.  He had infinite knowledge of the standard. He went and asked questions until he got the answers that rang true.  This is the ultimate in determining the robustness of a food safety program. I’m sure the yellow pad had a lot to do with it too.

As I taught in the classroom, you define automation, don’t let it define you.  All too often we fall for the “sizzle” of what these systems are said to do and we find out the sizzle is not from a tenderloin but a burger. (My apologies to the bros McDonald.)

With the growing importance of sustainability in agriculture,  how can CEA operators balance the use of sustainable practices with the need for rigorous food safety measures.  Are there specific certifications or guidelines they should consider?  

CEA food safety 5As you can tell by now, my perspective on food safety is different from anything else – I learned as a manufacturing engineer that when things don’t work as they should (different from the standard) you go back to the basics and start over – in this case, the basics of quality.

I started this interview by saying GFSI food safety standards are largely misunderstood across the entire food industry. Here again, I must separate the norm from what I believe is important. We as an industry do not understand quality systems and their concepts or requirements.

Sustainability is all about quality systems.  Quality systems are not a point in time like an audit. Nor is sustainability.  The question is, “How do we sustain quality?” Sustainability has become defined as a social construct. Wrong. Sustainability is doing the same thing consistently and improving time after time for a sustained period of time. Not more or new twists of the standard.

I have tried in this interview to impress your readers that the GFSI system must be embraced in a quality fashion.  As a process and not in a one-time checklist inspection.  While we gloat that GFSI is the best food safety system in the world and the US leads the way, we all drank the kool-aid.

We have been lucky as a nation illness-wise, to date.  As the demand for food increases what we do now, what we call food safety of trying to pass a once-a-year chaotic intervention (annual audit) of our operations, is not sustainable.

A good friend (Bob Wright) sums it this way, “Does it make the food any safer?”

Thanks for listening and apologies to anyone offended, especially the bros McDonald.

 

Karl Kolb, Ph.D., is the founder and President of the High Sierra Group companies, which services more than 10,000 customers with Ceres Certifications, International (ISO 17065 food safety certifying body), HSG/AME Certified Laboratories (17025 food testing laboratories), Ceres University (Accredited, degree granting), High Sierra Chemicals and Epicure Farms.

 

 

Unlock the Secrets To A Safer, Higher Quality Harvest With March 2024 CEA Food Safety Workshop  Registration Fee Includes
Expo Floor Access & Up To 3 CEUs

LEARN MORE & REGISTER TODAY!

Internal auditing certification is a mandatory GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) requirement that demonstrates an individual’s ability to conduct internal assessments of any food safety program.  Indoor Ag-Con has partnered with Ceres University, a leading provider of IACET-accredited food safety training and certification, to offer a cost-effective, convenient way to build your career AND help fulfill GFSI scheme requirements. Workshop fee includes:

  • Admission to 4-hour workshop and course materials
  • Ability to earn up to 3 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) upon completion
  • Indoor Ag-Con Expo Hall Only Pass, which includes access to Expo Floor March 11-12, 2024;  admission to all Indoor Ag-Con Expo Theater presentations; Expo Floor Welcome Happy Hour; and access to expo floor of National Grocers Association (NGA) Show running concurrently at Caesars Forum.

LEARN MORE & REGISTER TODAY!

 

Gotham Greens CEO Talks Sustainable Growth, Innovative Technologies and Exciting Milestones

In this month’s CEA Q&A, we speak with Gotham Greens‘ CEO Viraj Puri, who is joining our Indoor Ag-Con 2024 “Leader Insights” keynote panel in March! A true CEA leader, Gotham Greens has made a  remarkable journey from a single rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn to becoming one of the largest hydroponic leafy green producers in North America. From tackling the challenges of the South’s hot and humid climate with cutting-edge greenhouse technologies to introducing fresh salad kits and championing sustainability, Puri shares valuable insights into the company’s growth, initiatives, milestones and commitment to reshaping the future of agriculture.

Gotham Greens Georgia_4_Credit Gotham Greens

Gotham Greens has rapidly expanded across the U.S since its launch in 2011 – now operating in various states and climates. Can you share some insights into the innovative technologies and strategies employed by your latest greenhouse in the southeast, particularly addressing the challenges posed by the region’s hot and humid climate?

As we continue to grow our brand, we’re excited to expand in the South and Southeast with new greenhouses in Texas and Georgia. At Gotham Greens, we’re committed to growing more with less, especially as changing climates are creating less favorable growing conditions in these states and across the country. These new greenhouses use our most advanced technology to date, including enhanced automation, cooling and dehumidification systems specifically tailored to the regions, and data science capabilities in a fully closed system to help consistently and reliably grow food closer to where people live no matter the weather outside. We’re proud to bring fresh, sustainably grown leafy greens and herbs that meet the high-quality standard consumers everywhere have come to associate with and expect from the Gotham Greens brand.

The new, state-of-the-art greenhouse facilities in the Dallas Metro area (Seagoville, Texas) and in Monroe, Ga., located between Atlanta and Athens, are examples of what comes next as we face ongoing extreme weather events and increased risk of drought in the U.S. Gotham Greens’ indoor farms create the ideal conditions for plants to thrive and provide consumers throughout the southern U.S. with sustainable fresh produce all year-round.

Gotham Greens recently introduced a new line of salad kits, combining your high-quality greens and dressings.  Can you speak to the inspiration behind these salad kits and the response from consumers?

Gotham Greens is well known for our high quality, longer lasting, pesticide-free salad greens and our line of fresh, flavorful salad dressings, and this portfolio addition combines these ingredients for a quick and easy meal solution made with premium-quality salad greens and delicious flavors that consumers crave. The new salad kits are available in three popular flavor varieties (Green Goddess, Southwest Ranch and Caesar) and are packed with fresh ingredients, including Gotham Greens greenhouse-grown lettuce and fresh flavor-filled toppings and dressings, for convenient home-cooked meals or lunches on the go.

We want people to enjoy fresh greens throughout the day, and we remain committed to bringing consumers the best-tasting, most flavorful fresh foods in the category. What sets us apart from the competition is quality and flavor, from the greens that we grow to the ingredients that we use in all our products, and we hope that consumers can sense that commitment to taste, quality and sustainability in every bite. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback about the kits so far and are excited to bring them to more markets this winter.

 

default

Gotham Greens has championed sustainability, using significantly less water and land compared to traditional farming methods.  How do you envision the future of sustainable agriculture, especially within the CEA industry?  Are there upcoming initiatives or partnerships that will further strengthen Gotham Greens’ commitment to sustainability?

As a Certified B Corporation™, Gotham Greens champions quality, efficiency, dedication and freshness in all forms, both inside its greenhouses and throughout the communities where it operates. In addition to creating year-round, full-time jobs with competitive wages and benefits, we are driving the industry toward a more sustainable food system through industry-leading social and environmental practices. Our hydroponic growing methods help us use up to 90% less water than conventional growing methods, which means that at our current footprint, Gotham Greens saves 300 million gallons of water every year compared to field-grown farming, or the equivalent to around 450 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Whole Foods Market’s ninth annual trend report recently recognized our greens for promoting water conservation, a growing interest point for consumers. Gotham Greens’ national network of greenhouses provides a consistent and reliable supply of fresh greens for customers while eliminating the need for long-distance transportation, allowing its produce to stay fresher longer, thus increasing shelf life and decreasing food waste. As we continue to expand across the country, we look forward to deepening our relationships with key educational partners, such as University of California-Davis, as we help shape the agricultural climate of the future.

 

Gotham Greens Georgia_4_Credit Gotham GreensFrom a single rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn to one of the largest hydroponic leafy green producers in North America, Gotham Greens has undergone remarkable growth.  Are there specific milestones or initiatives you’re particularly excited about in the next phase of Gotham Greens development?

We recently celebrated our twelfth birthday in addition to the tenth anniversary of our second greenhouse located in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood on the roof of Whole Foods Market. The country’s first rooftop commercial-scale greenhouse integrated into a supermarket has now blossomed into a global movement of urban and innovative farming projects. This anniversary feels extra special, as this pioneering project has served as an inspiration to urban farming projects around the world. We’re especially grateful to Whole Foods Market for over a decade of supporting our mission to bring fresh, local and sustainably grown produce to its stores. We have additional plans for expansion and look forward to sharing more about that later this year!

Learn more about Gotham Greens by visiting their website.

And, make plans now to attend the March 11-12, 2024 edition of Indoor Ag-Con as Viraj joins other CEA executives on our keynote stage for our midday keynote session on day one:  “Leader Insights: Charting the Future Landscape of Controlled Environment Agriculture”.  Learn more about our full conference schedule and join us!

All photos courtesy of Gotham Greens.

Trend Report – Indoor Ag-Con 2024

JANUARY 14, 2024   Indoor Ag-Con returns March 11-12 to Caesars Forum offering  attendees an insider look into the driving forces behind the ever-evolving vertical farming | greenhouse | controlled environment agriculture industry. Boasting an expanded Expo Hall with 200+ exhibiting companies offering the most cutting-edge products, services and tools on the market, Indoor Ag-Con will offer an immersive experience to farmers, growers, ag tech leaders, suppliers, advocates and enthusiasts.

(Photos above from L-R: Tetraponics, New Age Laboratories, Oreon, Lifetime Green Coatings, Climate Control Systems Inc.)

Below are some of the most impactful trends shaping the indoor agriculture industry today and a selection of product highlights from Indoor Ag-Con 2024 exhibitors.

GO GREENER

Sustainability in indoor agriculture is a critical focus in modern farming practices, addressing environmental concerns and promoting efficient resource utilization. Indoor farming allows for precise control over environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and light, minimizing the need for pesticides and fertilizers. This results in reduced environmental impact compared to traditional outdoor farming. The controlled environment facilitates year-round production, reducing the reliance on seasonal cycles and transportation costs. By incorporating renewable energy sources and implementing innovative technologies, indoor agriculture contributes to a more sustainable and resilient food production system, aligning with the growing global emphasis on environmentally conscious practices.

Key Indoor Ag-Con exhibitors promoting their sustainable focus include:

Lifetime Green Coatings’ (Booth 906) industrial-grade, environmentally friendly concrete floor coating is VOC-free, food-safe, slip-resistant, and easy to apply—making it ideal for any business that handles food, plants, or livestock. 3x as thick as your average epoxy, allowing for durability, while remaining 100% flexible moving with the surface underneath. Create a safer and healthier operational environment with long-lasting, non-toxic coatings that help prevent the growth of mold, mildew, and bacteria.

Oreon (Booth 1320) is a Dutch, innovative developer and manufacturer of high-tech LED grow lights. Oreon started 15 years ago with the first commercial project with water-cooled Oreon LED fixtures installed in 2009. Now, the LED fixtures are worldwide deployed in the horticulture and vertical/indoor farming industry above various types of crops.

Environmental Plant Management (Booth 521) stands at the forefront of eco-friendly plant protection, manufacturing natural solutions in the USA. Their innovative products are distinguished by their use of catalytic enzymes, providing highly effective plant care without the drawbacks of oil, persistent odors, or residues. With 3rd party lab-documented success against a spectrum of pests and diseases, our products represent a leap forward in sustainable and effective plant care. Look out for new products including the 3 in 1 plant wash, ECO Green, an innovative solution that cleans plant leaves, roots, and acts as an effective pest management alternative and Clear Zona, a game-changer in plant yield enhancement.

NEW AGE Laboratories (Booth 1417) is a family-owned and operated business established in 1998 as an environmental laboratory working for clients like NASA and the Dept. of Defense. Their early focus on environmental jobs laid the foundation for a path rooted in scientific innovation and commitment to global betterment. The vision evolved with the world’s agricultural needs leading New Age to be the first Laboratory in North America to offer Plant Sap Analysis. Today, NEW AGE Laboratories stands at the intersection of cutting-edge science and agricultural excellence.

SMART AGRICULTURE

Indoor agriculture’s  integration of cutting-edge technologies has allowed farmers to create controlled environments that optimize crop growth and enhance overall productivity. Smart greenhouse construction boasting the latest technologies to increase productivity and sustainability. Additionally, vertical farming, hydroponics, and aquaponics systems leverage technology to maximize space utilization and resource efficiency, reducing the ecological footprint of agriculture. This seamless synergy between technology and indoor agriculture not only ensures year-round crop production but also fosters sustainable farming practices in an increasingly resource-constrained world.

At Indoor Ag-Con, key exhibitors driving the Smart Agriculture trend include:

Agra Tech Greenhouse Manufacturers (Booth 518) specializes in manufacturing commercial greenhouses and related technologies. Their offerings include a variety of greenhouse structures, advanced climate control systems, lighting, fertigation, irrigation, and customization options. Emphasizing energy efficiency and sustainability, Agra Tech caters to a diverse range of clients, from small farms to large commercial growers and educational institutions, providing not only products but also support and consulting services.

Netafim (Booth 1017) strives to provide growers with the best, most effective solutions. They have a total of 70 years of Dutch heritage in glasshouse manufacturing. Along with Netafim’s worldwide presence and precision innovation in the agricultural industry. We ensure that our turnkey commercial greenhouse projects are implemented with our comprehensive agricultural expertise, manufacturing competence, and the latest technology.

Agritecture (Booth 1216) is an advisory services and technology firm focused on climate-smart agriculture, particularly urban and controlled environment agriculture. Their mission is to accelerate and empower the transition to smarter and more resilient agriculture, and our vision is a new era where agriculture is economically feasible, resilient to climate change, and powered by data-driven strategies.

SpectraGrow (Booth 207) offers 3D Plant Lighting for Vertical Farming. They build precision LED systems for controlled environment agriculture. By solving 3D photon uniformity challenges in vertical AgTech, SpectraGrow, uniquely increases farm profitability with less electricity usage, more harvests, greater yields, and better plant quality.

Groupe Eode (Booth 1306) proudly introduces the AgroECU+, the advanced all-in-one grow room HVAC system designed to elevate standards for commercial growers. With a focus on precision temperature and humidity control, remarkable energy efficiency, and the added benefits of ionization through GPS Air NPBItechnology, Group Eode creates an environment that blends optimal conditions for cultivation with a touch of innovation and sophistication. The integration of air diffusion solutions from Aero Textile Concept (ATC), validated for performance using Computational Fluid Mechanics (CFD), further enhances the effectiveness of AgroECU+.

AUTOMATION=LABOR OPTIMIZATION

Automation in indoor farming has further strengthened traditional agricultural practices by integrating cutting-edge technologies to enhance efficiency and precision. In this context, various automated systems are employed to control and monitor crucial factors such as temperature, humidity, light, and nutrient levels within controlled environments. Additionally, artificial intelligence enables real-time data analysis, allowing farmers to make informed decisions for crop management. The implementation of automation not only increases productivity, but also promotes sustainability by minimizing resource waste.

Indoor Ag-Con exhibitors boasting Automation capabilities include:

Thanks to years of experience, Artechno Growsystems (Booth 400) has the know-how, skills, and expertise that benefits customers worldwide. The futuristic technology is not the goal but a means to achieve the best cultivation results. With a plant-oriented approach, technology, and a healthy dose of guts, Artechno Growsystems realizes a new standard within vertical growing with their AVF+. With the fully automated AVF+ Factory, Artechno takes care of all processes for the grower; the input and output of this turnkey plant factory are the same every day. The plants also get everything their plant-hearts desire, such as the right light intensity, temperature, nutrients, CO2, airflow, and humidity.

Grow Director Ltd.(Booth 1319) is a 6-year-old Agri-Tech company offering climate control and automation systems for vertical farms and greenhouses. The system stands out for its modular and scalable design and consists of six independent modules, each to perform its own task, multiple sensors and AI-driven software. It offers multiple solutions, including full hydroponics automation (irrigation, injection, dosing, mixing, water quality control), electrical devices automation (turn on / off, power control), environmental data collection, its analysis and environment control based on it.

Tetraponics (Booth 1416) designs and manufacture hydroponic automation systems. The FLORATek line of automated dosing systems is on its 2nd generation and features a simple user interface, while also featuring enhanced modularity and connectivity. debuting new dosing pumps that will enable the FLORATek 3X to be compatible with any size hydroponic setup. They will also be showing off some commercial-specific capabilities of their online portal, used to remotely monitor and control your systems from anywhere in the world with any device.

Ryzee (Booth 715) provides end-to-end solutions that enable CEA farmers with data-driven automation tools to increase efficiency. Their solutions combine web applications, mobile applications, cloud computing, and IoT sensing and control devices.

Climate Control Systems Inc. (Booth 512) has been manufacturing greenhouse automation systems since 1985. Their CEA automation software and solutions help achieve a better crop while saving precious grower time. Their three main solutions are the Fertigation Manager, Climate Manager and Ozone Pro Water TreatmentSystems. They are also distributors for Watts Water filtration Products and Climate Controls Inc vent motors, rack & pinions that are designed to help CEA owners maximize crop yields, help manage energy costs and help with water & fertilizer conservation.

For more information on the 2024 exhibitors, please see who’s exhibiting here.

ABOUT INDOOR AG-CON:

Founded in 2013, Indoor Ag-Con has emerged as the largest trade show and conference for vertical farming | greenhouse |controlled environment agriculture. Its events are crop-agnostic and touch all sectors of the business, covering produce, legal cannabis | hemp, alternate protein and non-food crops. More information, visit www.indoor.ag

 

Little Leaf Farms CEO: Navigating Sustainable Growth and Fresh Innovations

Join us for this month’s Q&A with Paul Sellew, the forward-thinking Founder & CEO of Little Leaf Farms, the largest U.S. greenhouse producer of hydroponic baby greens.   As the opening morning keynote speaker for the March 11-12, 2024 edition of Indoor Ag-Con, Paul sheds light on the challenges and opportunities of expanding Little Leaf Farms’ footprint, the eco-friendly practices that set it apart, and the company’s commitment to a farmer-first mindset.  From becoming the top-selling lettuce in New England to doubling production capacity with the recent expansion into McAdoo, PA, Sellew gives a glimpse into the company’s commitment to sustainable agriculture and its exciting plans for the future.

Given Little Leaf Farms’ recent milestone of becoming the #1 best-selling packaged lettuce in New England and the opening of a new greenhouse in McAdoo, PA, what challenges and opportunities do you foresee in expanding your footprint to new regions – and how does this contribute to your goal of reaching 100 acres under glass by 2026?
Little Leaf Farms.Packaging

When we opened our first greenhouse, we set out to build a more resilient food system and have pioneered a peri-urban approach in controlled environment agriculture. This means that our greenhouses are built in the surrounding regions of major urban centers to minimize the amount our leafy greens have to travel to reach the consumer, resulting in a lettuce that lasts longer and tastes better. We know this is the right model to enable us to bring our leafy greens to markets all over the country and are confident that once consumers in those new markets try our lettuce, they’ll never go back.

Little Leaf emphasizes sustainability. Can you highlight specific environmental practices that set the company apart and resonate with consumers?

Little Leaf Farms Indoor Ag-ContentEvery step of our growing process was designed to limit our impact on the planet. For example, we utilize captured rainwater in our soil-less farming, which results in 90% less water usage than field-grown greens. Plus our greenhouse locations are in regions with high natural precipitation and not dependent on groundwater as the west coast growers do.  . Our Devens, MA greenhouse gets 45 inches of rain per year alone and we use all of it, whereas Salinas, California sees only 10 inches of rain per year.

Our greenhouses are also built to maximize the free power of the sun, enabling us to grow our leafy greens with natural sunlight and solar-powered energy. We’re also using space much more efficiently and have 30 times more yield than conventional farms. In fact, 10 acres of our indoor greenhouse replaces 300 acres in a traditional farm. Our packages are just as important to our process, which is why they’re made from 100% post-consumer PET, which makes them infinitely recyclable and provides a much longer shelf life, too.

In a competitive market environment, what sets Little Leaf Farms apart, and how do you plan to maintain your leadership position as you expand to new markets?

Little Leaf Farms.ProcessWe have always approached growing lettuce as a farming company, rather than a tech company. While we are technologists and our technology is cutting-edge, our priority is growing sustainable, local lettuce that most importantly, tastes great. Our lettuce arrives on grocery store shelves within 24 hours of harvesting, spending less time traveling than most other lettuces. This, in addition to our highly automated system and sustainable growing practices, results in fresh, flavorful leafy greens that remain crispy a remarkably long time after purchase. At the end of the day, we’re growing food. People want to buy and eat what tastes good, and our amazing taste is what’s going to continue to be the differentiator for us.  We’ve also grown our business in a way that gives us the ability to scale profitably and better service our retailers, which is going to continue to put us in a position to challenge and compete with field-grown brands as we enter new markets. We’ve surpassed field-grown greens in New England and I’m confident we can replicate that success in other markets across the country as we grow.

In discussing the company’s success, you’ve mentioned maintaining a “farming company” mindset rather than a “tech play” approach.  Can you elaborate on how this mindset influences decision-making, innovation, and the overall character of Little Leaf, especially considering the evolving landscape of technology in agriculture?

Little Leaf Farms. PAOur business is about farming, and we consider farming a people-based business that puts the crop first. This mindset enables us to recruit the best team of growers, R&D staff, operations staff, and more to carry out our mission of growing fresh leafy greens for all. The farmer-first mindset also reinforces our commitment to growing a product that tastes great and that people actually want to eat, which ties directly to our mission of bringing fresh, leafy greens for all.

What’s next for Little Leaf Farms?

Our current focus is on getting our leafy greens to as many consumers as possible. Our recent expansion into McAdoo, PA has not only doubled our production capacity but has increased our retail presence to nearly 5,000 stores, expanding our footprint to include retailers in the Midwest and Southeast.

Little Leaf Farms.PA 2We’ve also expanded our product line to now offer salad kits made with our signature Baby Crispy Green Leaf lettuce, which had an initial launch in the Northeast this fall but will be expanding to our full distribution footprint in January 2024.

Learn more about Little Leaf Farms by visiting the website.  And, make plans now to join us for Indoor Ag-Con 2024 to hear Paul’s opening morning keynote address at 8 am on Monday, March 11, 2024!

Cultivating Change: Vertical Harvest CEO Talks Urban Farming, Local Impact, and Sustainable Futures

Founded in Jackson, Wyoming in 2016, Vertical Harvest stands out as a pioneering force — fusing architectural imagination, sustainable agriculture and a commitment to inclusivity.  Our CEA Q&A with CEO Nona Yehia explores the design principles and sustainability initiatives shaping her company’s growth, its newest projects in Westbrook, ME, and Detroit, MI and the meaningful difference the Vertical Harvest “Grow Well” model is making on the lives of individuals with disabilities.   From redefining “local” in food production to utilizing sustainable practices, Vertical Harvest has emerged not just as a trailblazer in controlled environment agriculture, but as a leader dedicated to feeding communities and fostering a brighter, more inclusive future.

As an accomplished architect, you brought your vision of North America’s first vertical hydroponic greenhouse to life with your flagship farm in Jackson, Wyoming in 2016. Could you share the key design and sustainability principles that guided the development of Vertical Harvest, and how these principles align with the company’s broader mission?

Vertical HarvestOur first farm in Wyoming started with a simple mandate: responsibly grow as much food as possible within our community (which has a four-month growing season and imports 90% of the food we eat) and to create job opportunities for people who live in our community, especially ones who suffer overwhelming unemployment rates, like people with disabilities. Our goal was to pursue both missions simultaneously, year-round via indoor growing, and work within the parameters of a city very scarce on available land and with a seasonable economy/labor pool.

And as an architect I’ve always been driven to try and understand the systems that build communities, how they support people, and conversely how they fail people, so it was amazing to dig into this in my own backyard. And I’ve rooted my career in the notion that the buildings and systems that make up the fabric of our cities, can and should be designed to meet the challenges of the 21st century – and be designed to serve all members of our 21st century society, especially those on the margins. States and cities are also recognizing that we need to do things differently, we need different approaches to climate adaptation as traditional agricultural systems come under greater stress.

Efforts to re-localize food production will be one of these different approaches and is a growing trend. As is indoor agriculture that can provide increased yields using fewer resources and climate proof our food supply against extreme weather.

So that’s how we became vertical farmers, designing and operating large scale indoor urban farms that grow better food and futures. We’ve seen how our farm is a new type of infrastructure that embodies conscious and radical inclusion — amplifying the voices of all to cultivate a new and burgeoning industry.

 

Vertical Harvest is expanding into different locations, such as the Westbrook, Maine farm and the recently announced project in Detroit. Can you share more about these projects and how they align with your mission of “feeding locals first” and supporting local food economies?

Vertical Harvest Maine
Vertical Harvest Westbrook rendering.

We imagine and advocate for a food system where everyone has the right to healthy food. Our goal to “feed locals first” prioritizes 70% of our produce going to customers within 150 miles of our farms — for the record we don’t call 400 miles “local” — and to meet the needs of the communities we’re growing in before we tap into wider distribution networks. To achieve this we look at the entire “community-as-our-customer” – so not just retail but also the small and medium businesses that make up the local culinary community as well as stalwart community institutions like hospitals, school systems, nursing homes and college campuses. On top of that we aim to divert 4 – 5 % of our farm’s total output specifically into low-income, low-access (LILA) channels, like food rescue operations and the charitable pantry system.

Vertical Harvest Detroit rendering
Vertical Harvest Detroit Rendering

Because of this focus on local food going to local folks, our farms are intentionally built within urban areas to both bolster the local food system and address food insecurity in the same communities where we farm. Our goal then becomes to replicate this mission across a national network of local farms. This is true in Westbrook, ME, a city in and of itself within the greater Portland Metro area, where we expect to be a meaningful contributor to the New England Food Vision of growing 30% of food locally by 2030. And it’s definitely true in Detroit, where we’re building in the Milwaukee Junction neighborhood with Bedrock Detroit. We’re very excited about exploring an even deeper level of opportunity there to imagine how we can use our farm to connect with all of the revitalization and infrastructure investment happening in that city (coincidentally, also my hometown and recently voted the #1 city in the world for start-ups).

Your commitment to employing people with disabilities and focusing on their abilities is inspiring. Can you elaborate on the impact this approach has had on the lives of your employees and how it has enhanced your company’s performance and mission?

Nona Yehia and Caroline Croft Estay
Vertical Harvest Co-Founders Nona Yehia and Caroline Croft Estay

Employing people with disabilities is personal. I grew up with a brother with developmental disabilities and from an early age, I observed how society treated him differently, with less opportunities. So when we set out to build the country’s first indoor vertical greenhouse, we wanted to implement a one-of-a-kind workforce model, too. Together, with my co-founder, Caroline Croft Estay – a former case manager in Teton County– we imagined “Grow Well,” a customized employment model fostering professional development, personal discovery and community impact. This person-centered approach aligns professional, personal and community components of the workplace to ensure the development of job skills, growth, accountability and engaged citizenship.

Across the country people with disabilities suffer on average an 80% unemployment rate, but at our farms we start by focusing on ability vs disability. And 40% of our folks are
differently-abled. For some we’re they’re first experience of meaningful and stable employment they’ve been offered. Others, even those with college degrees, often found themselves offered only entry level positions like cleaner or dishwasher.

Vertical Harvest Product and PeopleIn our 7 years of operation we’ve helped employees open bank accounts, sign their first lease, reverse evictions, get their driver’s license, earn back their guardianships and acted as health advocates as employees work to coordinate care across multiple doctors and health systems. These are real outcomes of our Grow Well customized employment program that we’re intensely proud of….

But also, our commitment to our people is an absolute brand differentiator. We like to say people come to the farm because they like our story, but they come back because of the quality of the product. We’re not in this for pity pennies – in fact that would undermine our whole mission to prove that neurodiverse minds, different life experiences and a range of perspectives make for stronger teams. And the fact that we are able to weave a great product and a great purpose together earns us tremendous brand loyalty and love.

Sustainability is a key focus for Vertical Harvest. Can you share some of the sustainable practices and technologies you implement in your operations and how they contribute to reducing environmental impact?

We’re committed to continuous improvement and innovation to enhance our own sustainability and in the indoor ag industry at large. We’re collaborating with the Resource Innovation Institute and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy to create the first of its kind benchmarking report for the CEA sector. This USDA-grant funded program is collecting 4 years of data to inform the strengths and weaknesses of production methods. Additionally, our Wyoming facility acts as an R&D lab to test strategies for maximizing yield, including crop-specific growing and harvesting techniques like optimal lighting, climate controls, rack density and crop transport automation. Our work in that farm has been recognized by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and the U.S. Department of Energy for our sustainable approach to natural and supplemental lighting. And then all future “next generation” farms are designed to be 100% electric. We like to say as the grid gets greener, so are we. And we’re always trying for more sustainable sourcing from our suppliers and keep a close eye on new technologies that enter the market.

What’s next for Vertical Harvest?

We have a roadmap for expansion – in addition to Maine opening and Detroit breaking ground next year, we hope to be announcing another 1 – 2 farms as well. Every farm will share some core features (like the Grow Well model and a commitment to prioritizing local), but also with a level of customization so each farm can adapt to the specific needs of the community they’re rooted in.

The needs of local ethnic communities and their culinary heritage is a great example, and we’re already trialing certain herbs and aromatics that are being requested in Maine. So, just as the farm in Jackson is a reflection of our western heritage and abundant outdoor adventure scene, the farm in Westbrook, ME will take on its own personality adapting to its place, space and culture. And of course, that goes for Detroit too and all our future farms as well, because we believe hope lies in the local. We know that real community is built through the tables we set, who we make a place for and the love and care and nourishment that gets mixed into every dish. We’re excited to dig in!

 

About Nona Yehia

An accomplished architect by training, and principal of GYDE Architects in Jackson Hole, WY, Nona designed North America’s first vertical hydroponic greenhouse and founded Vertical Harvest Farms. Alongside her co-founder, Caroline Croft-Estay, Nona pioneered an inclusive, customized employment model for people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities. Vertical Harvest grew from Nona’s experiences growing up with a brother with developmental disabilities, love of fresh and local food, obsession with great design, and long-standing community involvement. Nona’s dynamic leadership style has led to recognition as a CNN Champion of Change. She is a Tony Hsieh Award Fellow and a Cities Member on World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council. Vertical Harvest is a 2x finalist for Fast Company’s Best Places to Work for Innovators. Nona graduated from the University of Michigan and earned a Masters degree in architecture from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. She resides in Jackson, WY.

Learn more about Nona and Vertical Harvest —visit the company website.

 

Winter Farm Cultivates Success With Integrated Farming Approach, Sustainable Solutions

 

Winter Farm Q&A with Indoor Ag-Con
Winter Farm leaders (L-R) Yves Daoust, Founder and CTO and Alain Brisebois, President and CEO

Winter Farm’s focus on environmental sustainability, achieving food autonomy, and strategic partnerships has garnered attention and headlines, with recent funding of $46 million raising the bar for its ambitious goals. Indoor Ag-Con had the chance to catch up with the innovative Quebec-based company’s leaders — Yves Daoust, Founder and CTO (pictured above left) and Alain Brisebois, President and CEO (pictured above right)  — to discuss the advantages of their approach, their goal of helping growers replace 10% of Canada’s strawberry imports, the renowned Fraise d’hiver strawberry, funding strategies and future opportunities in the CEA industry.

 Winter Farm is described as a “tech company that designs, deploys, and operates controlled environment agriculture (CEA) solutions that work in harmony with existing agrifood systems.” Can you share how your technology and approach differ from other vertical farms and advantages it offers in terms of yield, quality, and cost-effectiveness?

Yves Daoust: Winter Farm’s concept fully integrates a strawberry vertical farm with an adjacent greenhouse: this shows the company’s deep understanding of the grower’s reality. As a result, our strawberry vertical farm is capable of efficiently heating the greenhouse in the wintertime. As heat recuperation is a major concern in controlled environment agriculture (CEA), this solution constitutes a major innovation that reduces the dependence of greenhouses on fossil fuels and lowers their carbon footprint. In addition, the integration allows for additional revenue generation as farmers can grow strawberries in the vertical farm, as well as peppers, lettuce, eggplant, or tomatoes etc. in the greenhouse using the same amount of energy. The Winter Farm solution exemplifies that it is possible for CEA to be both profitable and environmentally sustainable at the same time. To realize this dual objective, we use a multidisciplinary approach to intelligent automation –  integrating producers’ knowledge, agronomy, engineering,  and artificial intelligence (AI). Our system of environmental digital control, CERVEAU, aims to optimize yield, maximize energy efficiency, and improve revenues by fully characterizing the strawberry plant’s behavior in CEA by data,  physical modeling and machine learning.

One of Winter Farm’s goals is to help growers replace 10% of Canada’s strawberry imports.  Can you speak to some of the environmental and economic benefits that could come from achieving this goal, and how Winter Farm is working to make it a reality?

Alain Brisebois: Vertical farming is a promising new agricultural advance that holds potential for sustainable agriculture in the future.  At Winter Farm, in addition to providing efficient heating of the adjacent greenhouse, vertical farming eliminates the need for chemical pesticides well known for their harmful effects on both the environment and human health. Additionally, since Winter Farm allows local production, it minimizes transportation needs, further reducing the carbon footprint of fruit and vegetable production. Further benefits of our production practices include significantly lower water usage compared to traditional field production and the maximization of cultivable areas with the vertical stacking of the production. By utilizing heat management and recovery technology, we enable growers to produce an array of greenhouse produce in winter, thereby jointly promoting food autonomy and generating additional revenues for the growers. Our goal is to offer sustainable solutions for agriculture, not just for Quebec, but for the communities worldwide that face challenges related to food security.

Please share a little more about the Fraise d’hiver Strawberry and what makes it so special. 

Alain Brisebois: Fraise d’hiver literally translate to “winter berry”. Quebec is renowned for its tasty field strawberries. It brings us a lot of pride to be able to offer consumers that special Quebec taste during the winter months!  Thanks to an optimally controlled environment that ensures high quality, freshness and flavor, the Fraise d’hiver strawberry’s natural sweetness and vibrant red color are truly what make it stands out in the market.

Congratulations on the recent announcement of your $46 million raise! We read that this funding is coming from a variety of sources, including government organizations and private partners.  Can you talk about Winter Farm’s approach to securing funding and building strategic partnerships? 

Alain Brisebois: Thank you very much! In an emerging industry like ours, financing is crucial. This funding was especially important to us as it demonstrates that our concept can be successfully integrated into the agricultural industry and that CEA can be both sustainable and profitable. Winter Farm’s approach to securing funding and building strategic partnerships has always been guided by a strong commitment to innovation and a profit-driven mindset. Additionally, our company’s goals and vision are in line with government priorities, such as promoting food autonomy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and developing a more sustainable economy. When we designed the solution, it was paramount that it be eligible to the available agricultural financing and support programs. We have also demonstrated how the agricultural sector can embrace the digital era with cutting-edge technology that is ready to deploy, which has been instrumental in our success so far. Our Vaudreuil location will soon be producing nearly 1 million kilos of strawberries per year, which is a significant achievement for us and the vertical farming movement. We are now thrilled to continue partnering with growers and building new sites!

What do you see as the biggest opportunities for the CEA industry as a whole in years to come, and how is Winter Farm working to seize them?

Yves Daoust: Currently, a major focus in CEA is on energy accessibility and cost. Winter Farm’s success has been based on addressing this aspect from the outset. This has provided us with the momentum to continue building an increasingly sustainable and profitable CEA solution for fresh produce agriculture. Innovation is crucial for the future of the industry, and as such, Winter Farm is committed to furthering our AI-driven work in agronomy and engineering. Our goal is to ensure that our technologies are profitable and accessible to growers worldwide.

To learn more,visit the Winter Farm website. 

 

Talking Automation, Sustainability and Scale With Better Future Farms Co-Founder John McMahon

Earlier this month, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin announced that Better Future Farms, Inc. will build a new hydroponic greenhouse and processing facility on a 61-acre site in the  Louisa County Industrial Air Park. Backed by funding from Generate Capital, a sustainable infrastructure investment and operating platform and a distribution partnership with Taylor Farms,  a leading North American producer of salads and healthy fresh foods, the facility is set to come online in 2024.  In this month’s CEA Q&A, John McMahon, co-founder/chief operating officer of Better Future Farms and founder of Schuyler Greens, shared insights on their decision to locate in central Virginia’s Louisa County , their sustainability initiatives and long term goals for the company.

What led to the decision to build the new greenhouse and processing facility in Louisa County?  What factors made this location the best choice for Better Future Farms?

Better Future Farms Indoor Ag-Con Q and AThe decision was driven by both the site and infrastructure. My business partner David Drescher and I both live in the Charlottesville area, and Louisa County is the next county over.  In central Virginia it’s hard to find the flat terrain needed for a greenhouse facility.  This site had that and the right infrastructure in place in terms of electrical capabilities, natural gas, and proximity to large freeways and distribution logistics.

The local support was another key factor.  We looked at several different counties and once we talked to Louisa County about the project and what it entailed, they were incredibly supportive and became great partners throughout the process.

We also wanted to build our first project in our own backyard in Virginia, as we’re from the area and didn’t want to be on a plane every week. Leveraging our existing relationships in the CEA industry in Virginia also played a role. The state is very enthusiastic about the future of CEA and government agencies and organizations like the   Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership were very supportive and helpful.  And, of course, Virginia itself is a great choice since it puts the facility within a day’s drive of a large population base.

What will differentiate Better Future Farms from other greenhouse/indoor operations?

I’ve been a grower for about 10 years now, so I tend to be a bit cynical when it comes to making big claims. I would say that we’re investing a significant portion of our capital in automation – in the greenhouse, pack line, and growing system.  This decision was influenced by owning and operating a smaller greenhouse for years and recognizing the repetitive tasks that are present in greenhouse operations. The goal of automation is not to replace employees, but to automate the tasks that are repetitive and do not add value, freeing up employees to perform more important tasks.

I see automation is a tool in our toolbox.  We’re not a technology company. At the end of the day, our job is to be a sustainable business that grows lettuce at the right price. The focus of the investment and all our innovations is to do that as efficiently as possible.

Can you share more about your partnership with Taylor Farms?  How will this collaboration help you reach more customers?

Better Future FarmsTaylor Farms is one of the largest salad and fresh cut vegetable processors in the world and all our lettuce will be marketed under Taylor Farms’ Earthbound Farms brand. David and I have both been at this for a long time and we know what it takes to build a brand.  So, we wanted to team up with an existing brand rather than build a new one from scratch.  We talked to several companies and when we met with Taylor Farms, our objectives, philosophies, and values all aligned.

I’m not the type of greenhouse grower seeking to displace field growers.  The way the industry is now, greenhouse/controlled environment agriculture production is miniscule compared to what the large California farms put out.  But these western growers see a need to diversify the supply chain.  Retailers are asking for it because of food safety issues. And, together with post pandemic freight, shipping and other supply chain , water, and weather challenges, it’s gotten more complicated –and more expensive.  Greenhouses/CEA can help diversify the supply chain by allowing these large players to grow product closer to the end user.

We have a great relationship with Taylor Farms and are so excited to be working with them.  For me, starting as a smaller, niche grower, it’s a huge honor to be growing for the largest lettuce producer.

Can you speak to any specific sustainability initiatives or practices that Better Future Farms will implement in its operations and how they align with Generate Capital’s focus on sustainable agriculture?

Generate Capital is a leading ESG public benefit corporation focused heavily on building and financing solutions for clean energy, water, waste, agriculture and more.  They’d been looking at the CEA sector for some time.  While we are their first investment here, I expect they will be very active in this space, and not just with us.

We certainly share their focus on sustainable agriculture and have several sustainability initiatives in our operations.

We are harvesting all our rainwater. Virginia consistently gets 44 inches of rain distributed throughout the year.  We expect that 90-95% of our irrigation will be reclaimed water.  As part of our 14.5-acre facility, we have a 2-acre retention pond that can hold 2.5 million gallons that we’ll be pulling into the greenhouse and using for irrigation.

We’ll also be using 100% LED lights, so there will be no high-pressure sodium lighting and less energy use.

And we’ll always be on the lookout for even more ways to use the least amount of inputs and energy to be as sustainable as possible.

What are your long-term goals for Better Future Farms? What do you hope to achieve in the next few years?

Our goals are to build out multiple facilities in Virginia and other geographical locations, add different products, and grow our partnership with Taylor Farms.

In terms of crops, we’d like to offer different types of lettuce and, possibly, berries.  We want to become a diversified producer. The challenge is you need to marry products that complement each other. For example, lettuce and strawberries work well together because they both travel in the cold chain.  Tomatoes and vine crops need to be on a warmer truck.

What’s next for Schuyler Greens?  Will you still be involved?

I wouldn’t be doing this new project without the knowledge and experience I gained from launching and building Schuyler Greens.  I’ve owned Schuyler Greens for more than 9 years now and it encompasses 225 acres outside of Charlottesville with a greenhouse in the middle. I will be keeping Schuyler Greens separate from Better Future Farms.

Schuyler Greens is better off as a traditional farm with a greenhouse on it as we don’t have access to the infrastructure or flat terrain needed to scale up a large greenhouse. The value for me is that Schuyler Greens is a true working farm with cattle, timber and other resources.

We really live in an Amazon world today.  The pandemic certainly accelerated some of the structural changes and put a spotlight on supply chain issues.  Just like consumers, wholesalers and retailers want product all the time so it’s essential for growers to keep up the pace of demand or risk losing business.

The bottom line is that all farming is economies of scale. To consistently produce every day of the week and be sustainable, reliable, and dependable for your customers –whether you’re a small niche grower or a mega-grower– is hard work.    At Schuyler Greens and Better Future Farms, we’re committed to meeting the needs of our customers and partners and are excited about the future.

To learn more about Better Future Farms, visit   www.betterfuture.farm

To learn more about Schuyler Greens, visit www.schuylergreens.com

The Indoor Farmer Who’s Using Freight Farms to Increase Food Security for the Cayman Islands

In the Cayman Islands, Freight Farms and Primitive Greens are working to overturn the status quo of food supply.

A Freight Farm being Delivered
A Freight Farm being Delivered

With the Cayman Islands’ beauty comes a challenging food supply chain. The islands only produce about 1% of their own food, with the rest of the food they consume sourced from Jamaica, Honduras, and, largely, the United States. Relying on shipped produce results in precarious food security. To make matters worse, there are very few direct shipping lines from food-producing Caribbean islands to the Cayman Islands. With lengthy shipping routes, the fresh food that the Cayman Islands ultimately receives is no longer very fresh … and it’s also very pricey.

Enter Freight Farms’ vertical shipping container farms. Codi Whittaker, a young recent college grad, and business partner Kerry Lawrence purchased three container farms from Freight Farms to launch their business, Primitive Greens, with the goal of increasing the sustainability of life on the Cayman Islands.

A Lettuce Wall in Primitive Greens Freight Farm
A Lettuce Wall in Primitive Greens Freight Farm

The three Freight Farms allow Primitive Greens to defy the very things that make fresh food so scarce on the island: a lack of arable land, extreme weather which makes farming near-impossible, and those long shipping lines. Instead, Primitive Greens grows right near consumers, inside high-tech shipping containers right on Grand Cayman island. They work the container farms’ perfectly climate-controlled environment to their advantage to grow beautiful, coveted produce. This, they sell to grocery stores and restaurants on the island at a competitive price — offering island establishments and residents reasonably priced, long-lasting, quality produce.

A school group visits Primitive Greens
A school group visits Primitive Greens

To increase the sustainability of the business, Primitive Greens plans to install a solar and energy storage microgrid that will fuel the farms with 100% clean energy. Energy cost is up everywhere, and the Cayman Islands are not immune. Currently, Primitive Greens pays the equivalent of $0.40 USD per kilowatt hour of electricity — mostly from dirty diesel fuel offered by the local utility. (By comparison, the current average cost of energy in Los Angeles is about $0.26 USD per kilowatt hour.) The solar project, which features solar panels floating in the water of an old quarry, will not only make growing food more sustainable. It will also provide resiliency to the island, through power that is available 24/7 and independent of the electrical grid.

“We’re basically selling the community cheaper, healthier, more sustainable, locally grown food; we’re providing power for less than half the cost of diesel; we’re creating food security; we’re creating jobs; and we’re not clearing any land.” — Codi Whittaker, Co-Founder and Operator of Primitive Greens

Primitive Greens intends to send Freight Farms to each of the three Cayman Islands, to alleviate food security for the entire territory. Ultimately, they strive to be the providers of fresh produce for Cayman.

Primitive Greens was recently featured in a webinar hosted by Freight Farms on the potential for indoor farming in the Cayman Islands. Watch the conversation at https://www.freightfarms.com/visit-freight-farms/primitive-greens-live-webinar.

Freight Farms has seen incredible growth in the adoption of their technology in the Caribbean islands, many of which face challenges similar to the Cayman Islands’. From Turks and Caicos to the Bahamas, islanders are discovering the power of controlled environment agriculture to revolutionize food quality and access for themselves and their communities.

About Freight Farms:

Founded in 2012, Freight Farms debuted the first vertical hydroponic farm built inside an intermodal shipping container with the mission of democratizing and decentralizing the local production of fresh, healthy food. Since its inception, Freight Farms has refined its product offering to arrive at the Greenery™ S container farm. With global customers ranging from small business farmers to the corporate, hospitality, retail, education, and nonprofit sectors, Freight Farmers make up the largest network of connected farms in the world. AgTech Breakthrough named Freight Farms the 2022 “IoT Monitoring Solution of the Year” for its farmhand® IoT automation software.

To learn more, visit freightfarms.com or connect on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, or TikTok.