This High-Tech Vertical Farm Promises Whole Foods Quality at Walmart Prices

Selina Wang
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SoftBank-backed Plenty is out to build massive indoor farms on the outskirts of every major city on Earth.

Before stepping into Plenty Inc.’s indoor farm on the banks of the San Francisco Bay, make sure you’re wearing pants and closed-toe shoes. Heels aren’t allowed. If you have long hair, you should probably tie it back.

Your first stop is the cleaning room. Open the door and air will whoosh behind you, removing stray dust and contaminants as the door slams shut. Slide into a white bodysuit, pull on disposable shoe covers, and don a pair of glasses with colored lenses. Wash your hands in the sink before slipping on food-safety gloves. Step into a shallow pool of clear, sterilized liquid, then open the door to what the company calls its indoor growing room, where another air bath eliminates any stray particles that collected in the cleaning room.

The growing room looks like a strange forest, with pink and purple LEDs illuminating 20-foot-tall towers of leafy vegetables that stretch as far as you can see. It smells like a forest, too, but there’s no damp earth or moss. The plants are growing sideways out of the columns, which bloom with Celtic crunch lettuce, red oak kale, sweet summer basil, and 15 other heirloom munchables. The 50,000-square-foot room, a little more than an acre, can produce some 2 million pounds of lettuce a year.

Step closer to the veggie columns, and you’ll spot one of the roughly 7,500 infrared cameras or 35,000 sensors hidden among the leaves. The sensors monitor the room’s temperature, humidity, and level of carbon dioxide, while the cameras record the plants’ growing phases. The data stream to Plenty’s botanists and artificial intelligence experts, who regularly tweak the environment to increase the farm’s productivity and enhance the food’s taste. Step even closer to the produce, and you may see a ladybug or two. They’re there to eat any pests that somehow make it past the cleaning room. “They work for free so we don’t have to eat pesticides,” says Matt Barnard, Plenty’s chief executive officer.

Barnard, 44, grew up on a 160-acre apple and cherry orchard in bucolic Door County, Wis., a place that attracts a steady stream of fruit-picking tourists. Now he and his four-year-old startup aim to radically change how we grow and eat produce. The world’s supply of fruits and vegetables falls 22 percent short of global nutritional needs, according to public-health researchers at Emory University, and that shortfall is expected to worsen. While the field is littered with the remains of companies that tried to narrow the gap over the past few years, Plenty seems the most promising of any so far, for two reasons. First is its technology, which vastly increases its farming efficiency—and, early tasters say, the quality of its food—relative to traditional farms and its venture-backed rivals. Second, but not least, is the $200 million it collected in July from Japanese telecom giant SoftBank Group, the largest agriculture technology investment in history.

With the backing of SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, Plenty has the capital and connections to accelerate its endgame: building massive indoor farms on the outskirts of every major city on Earth, some 500 in all. In that world, food could go from farm to table in hours rather than days or weeks. Barnard says he’s been meeting with officials from some 15 governments on four continents, as well as executives from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Inc., while he plans his expansion. (Bezos Expeditions, the Amazon CEO’s personal venture fund, has also invested.) He intends to open farms abroad next year; this first one, in the Bay Area, is on track to begin making deliveries to San Francisco grocers by the end of 2017. “We’re giving people food that tastes better and is better for them,” Barnard says. He says that a lot.

Plenty acknowledges that its model is only part of the solution to the global nutrition gap, that other novel methods and conventional farming will still be needed. Barnard is careful not to frame his crusade in opposition to anyone, including the industrial farms and complex supply chain he’s trying to circumvent. He’s focused on proving that growing rooms such as the one in South San Francisco can reliably deliver Whole Foods quality at Walmart prices. Even with $200 million in hand, it won’t be easy. “You’re talking about seriously scaling,” says Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the investment arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The question then becomes, are things going to fall apart? Are you going to be able to maintain quality control?”

The idea of growing food indoors in unlikely places such as warehouses and rooftops has been hyped for decades. It presents a compelling solution to a series of intractable problems, including water shortages, the scarcity of arable land, and a farming population that’s graying as young people eschew the agriculture industry in greater numbers. It also promises to reduce the absurd waste built into international grocery routes. The U.S. imports some 35 percent of fruits and vegetables, according to Bain & Co., and even leafy greens, most of which are produced in California or Arizona, travel an average of 2,000 miles before reaching a retailer. In other words, vegetables that are going to be appealing and edible for two weeks or less spend an awful lot of that time in transit.

So far, though, vertical farms haven’t been able to break through. Over the past few years, early leaders in the field, including PodPonics in Atlanta, FarmedHere in Chicago, and Local Garden in Vancouver have shut down. Some had design issues, while others started too early, when hardware costs were much higher. Gotham Greens in Brooklyn, N.Y., and AeroFarms in Newark, N.J., look promising, but they haven’t raised comparable cash hoards or outlined similarly ambitious plans.

While more than one of these companies was felled by a lack of expertise in either farming or finance, Barnard’s unusual path to his Bay Area warehouse makes him especially suited for the project. He chose a different life than the orchard, frustrated with the degree to which his life could be upended by an unexpected freeze or a broken-down tractor-trailer. Eventually he became a telecommunications executive, then a partner at a private equity firm. In 2007, two decades into his white-collar life, he started his own company, one that concentrated on investing in technologies to treat and conserve water. After an investor suggested he consider putting money into vertical farming, Barnard began to research the subject and quickly found himself obsessed with shortages of food and arable land. “The length of the supply chain, the time and distance it takes,” he says, meant “we were throwing away half of the calories we grow.” He spent months chatting with farmers, distributors, grocers, and, eventually, Nate Storey.

This High-Tech Vertical Farm Promises Whole Foods Quality at Walmart Prices