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“I like to call this the cathedral.” So says Matt Barnard, CEO and cofounder of the vertical farming startup Plenty. We’re standing in a room at the company’s headquarters in a former electronics distribution center in South San Francisco, staring up at glowing, 20-foot high towers filled with perfectly formed kale and herbs.
The company isn’t the first to build an indoor urban farm in a warehouse. But Plenty, which has received $26 million in funding to date from investors such as Bezos Expeditions and Innovation Endeavors, believes that it has the technology to grow food more efficiently–at the same cost or less than crops grown in the field–so it can more easily scale up to supply supermarkets around the world.
Inside another gleaming white room, wearing a food processing uniform and gloves, Barnard reaches up and picks rare varieties of basil, chives, a mustard green called mizuna, red leaf lettuce, sorrel, and Siberian kale, eating each and handing me samples as he talks. None of these are available in the average grocery store, because they wouldn’t survive the supply chain. Most produce available now has been bred or engineered to last through rough handling in distribution centers and long distances in trucks–not for taste. The heirloom seeds that Plenty uses, which were bred for taste, are more delicate.
Unlike most other indoor farming companies, which typically grow food in rows on shelves, Plenty grows food vertically–each plant popping out of the side of a tall, skinny tower. Lights are also arranged vertically rather than pointing down from above. The design allows for what the company calls “field-scale architecture”–rooms that can produce the same output as a fairly large farm field in a tiny space. Some early companies in the urban farming industry were constrained by smaller production.
While early indoor farming was much more energy-intensive, the improving efficiency of LED lights means that the new system can actually have a smaller carbon footprint than farming in the field, at least for certain crops.
“The fact that we can compete with the field on cost is great, but what is, of course, more exciting is that we’re not just competing on real costs, we’re competing on carbon cost,” says Storey. Eventually, he believes that many varieties of food will be more sustainable to grow indoors than out.
The company envisions building farms in every major metropolitan area around the world. After the launch in San Francisco in 2017, other major markets will follow in 2018. “People are going to see that the nutrient-rich food in their diet–fruit and vegetable–is going to start tasting better, and it’s going to be grown in farms like this,” says Barnard. “And it’s going to happen with stunning swiftness, because we’re now at the point where we can get this into everyone’s budget.”