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Vertical Farming Firms Expanding Distribution Across Country

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Lettuce touted as hyperlocal, healthier

This is the second article in a three-part series by The Shelby Report on the produce industry.

by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer

Over the past decade or so, vertical farming has grown tremendously through research and development. And during COVID, it proved to be a safe and reliable solution for some of the supply issues that plagued the grocery industry.

Plenty is an indoor vertical farming company based in San Francisco, California. Founded to feed more people with less land and water, Plenty offers baby arugula, baby kale, crispy lettuce and mizuna mix at retail.

“We grow more food without converting any more land to agriculture, and we use less than 5 percent of the water required to grow leafy greens in the field,” said Nate Storey, co-founder and CSO. “The Plenty farm produces more crop cycles in a year than an outdoor farm can grow in a lifetime.

vertical“Plenty can grow the equivalent of 1,500 acres of farmland in a building the size of a big box store, getting 150-350 times the yield possible in the field, depending on what we’re growing.”

And the company is still growing.

“Today, we service 40-plus retail and online grocery stores out of that South San Francisco indoor vertical farm,” Storey said.

“Our grocery distribution will increase greatly over the next couple of years as we expand our agreement with Albertsons to service 431 stores across California.”

And while COVID-19 affected the produce industry at large – from growers and shippers to grocers and consumers – vertical farming has been relatively untouched.

“Because we are local and indoor, we did not experience the supply chain or labor disruptions seen around the country,” Storey said.

“Most of our harvesting is automated, which means we eliminate the back-breaking labor and use people to run machines instead. That allows us to keep people socially distanced and working safely.”

Giving back was important for the company throughout the pandemic. Plenty has tripled its sales and donations to food banks during COVID, Storey said.

Similar to the fast-paced growth of Plenty, technology-driven vertical farming company Kalera has been expanding after finding success. The company offers a variety of greens as well as microgreens.

In 2018, Kalera opened its first site in the Marriott World Center in Orlando, Florida. In 2020, the company opened its first large-scale facility, also in Orlando, and has since announced expansion to Atlanta, Georgia, in early 2021 and Houston, Texas, in spring 2021 with two more large-scale growing facilities.

Kalera CEO Daniel Malechuk said the company likely will have additional announcements for continued expansion, both across North America and beyond.

However, prior to the pandemic, Kalera’s customer base was focused on the foodservice industry, including hospitality. That had to change.

“Central Florida here in Orlando is heavily based on tourism, with all the resorts, with the theme parks, etc. And that has taken a tremendous hit,” Malechuk said.

“So we quickly pivoted toward a retail strategy, and we were able to partner with Publix, which is the large retail chain here in the Southeast, particularly in the Florida market.”

A silver lining of the pandemic for Kalera was its highlight on vertical farming companies, especially as food­service comes back online.

“No. 1 is food dependability…a pandemic affects the number of drivers or transportation or all the different supply chain logistical pieces that get impacted when there’s lockdowns or quarantine,” Malechuk said.

“It’s all the more reason that hyperlocal, right where the people are – whether that be in a food desert or somewhere that’s not – becomes more and more important.”

Malechuk added that health and safety are other considerations working in the company’s favor.

“What Kalera offers is the ability to bring product within hours directly to the end user consumer, rather than days or even weeks across long transportation chains in which multiple people touch the product,” he said.vertical

Monsey, New York-based Evergreen Kosher Market has been around for seven years, offering a wide variety of fresh, organic and fresh-cut produce, as well as custom fruit and vegetable platters.

After the market was approached by Evergreens Vertical Farming, store officials decided to partner with the Israeli company. That partnership has been a success.

Evergreens grows fresh herbs and greens, all from a refrigerated box that is free standing. The small farm is set up right outside of the market, using power and water resources from inside the store.

“As we explored the option of bringing it to our store with the company, we felt it was worth the time and logistical investment to make it happen…We just harvested our first crop, and it’s looking really good,” said Sarita Dresdner, creative director for the market.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest in it. We have gotten a lot of inquiries from customers and bystanders. The hope is people will prefer it because it’s going to taste as though you picked it right out of the field.”

The success so far has pushed Evergreen to open another grocery store, its third, in Pomona, New York.

“As we grow and learn what our customers want most, this Evergreen is going to be even more modern and innovative than the original store,” Dresdner said.

For the first article in this series, click here.

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