Plenty Unveils Its Largest, Most Efficient Farm Yet
Just outside the LED-lit depths of the Bay Area’s newest and most futuristic indoor farm, a robot arm grabs a row of seedlings and sticks them into a hydroponic planter. An even larger robot arm then flips the planter vertically and sends it onward to become one thin sliver of a 20-foot-tall wall of arugula, baby kale and beet leaves.
South San Francisco vertical farm company Plenty has unveiled its biggest, most efficient and most automated farm yet in its hometown. Called Tigris, it grows produce hydroponically — without soil — with LED lights year-round. Unlike outdoor farmers, Plenty’s engineers don’t have to think about the seasons, pests or what plants will grow best locally. While Tigris is specifically designed for leafy greens, Plenty CEO Matt Barnard said the company has test-grown nearly 700 varieties of plants within the last year.
There are more than 20 companies erecting indoor farms around the country — another Bay Area player is San Mateo’s Crop One, which is building a giant farm in Dubai. Industry leaders say vertical farms can be a solution at a time when labor shortages, drought and climate change threaten outdoor agriculture as well as bring fresh produce to regions that lack arable land. These farms are springing up all over the world, including Japan, the Netherlands and Antarctica.
According to Plenty, the new farm can grow 1 million plants at a time in a facility around the size of a basketball court and process 200 plants per minute, thanks to strides in automation. The new farm means Plenty will be able to greatly widen its distribution to grocery stores and restaurants.
Plenty, which operates one other farm in South San Francisco as well as farms in Wyoming and Washington, plans to open farms all over the world, and has received $226 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. Plenty’s engineers designed ways to control the environment of each individual plant at the new farm, from the temperature to the amount of light, which impacts flavor.
“On the farm I grew up on, we didn’t measure any of the things we measure here because at the end of the day, there was nothing we could do about it,” said Barnard, who was raised on a cherry and apple farm in Wisconsin.
Inside these vertical farms, everything is intentional and nothing happens by chance, according to engineers.
“We have only one sun outside, but here we can choose the exact light spectrum and intensity based on what we want the plant to taste like,” added Izabelle Back, an engineering manager at Plenty.
In 2018, the company started selling greens through online retailer Good Eggs, San Francisco market Faletti Foods and Roberts Market in Woodside. Barnard said Plenty could expand to as many as 100 grocery stores in the Bay Area by late 2019. He also said prices should continue to drop due to the farm’s efficiency — on Good Eggs right now, a 5-ounce box of salad greens goes for $4.99.
Barnard also hopes to work with more chefs. Plenty supplies San Francisco robot burger spot Creator and fine dining restaurant Atelier Crenn.
Anthony Secviar, chef-owner of Michelin-starred Palo Alto restaurant Protege, described Plenty’s greens as “delicious, vibrant, luscious” and “aesthetically immaculate.” He also remarked on their unusually lengthy shelf life and the lack of need to wash them as being a huge boon for busy chefs.
“We’re begging them to get in the restaurant industry because they’re going to change the game,” Secviar said.
The new farm holds rows and rows of tall green walls, which alternate with walls of bright, colorful LED displays you’d expect to see at Burning Man. Combined with the climate-controlled environment, it clearly racks up a higher energy bill than outdoor farms.
Barnard prefers to look at the entire environmental footprint, including carbon footprint. Since Plenty’s business model is based on distributing only in a farm’s immediate region, its produce travels far fewer miles than, say, avocados from Mexico.
Barnard said Plenty has taken steps to grow more efficient, with the new farm being five times as energy efficient as the company’s other farm one year ago. “We are now roughly on par with a field farm when you look at the total footprint.”
Plenty plans to implement solar and wind power at future farms. The company also claims Tigris uses less than 1% of the amount of land and less than 5% of water compared with conventional outdoor farms.
Because the vertical farming industry is so new, there isn’t much in the way of academic research into its viability. In 2017, Cornell researchers received a three-year, $2.4 million grant to comprehensively study indoor farms, including their environmental impacts compared with outdoor farms. The results are still to come.
Plenty is pushing forward regardless. The company has started experimenting with strawberries and tomatoes and expects to respond to consumers’ increasing interest in plant-based protein with legumes within the next few years.
Some crops, like wheat, are too expensive to grow indoors at scale to be realistic ventures, but the vertical nature of Plenty’s farms doesn’t represent a barrier, according to Plenty chief scientific officer Nate Storey. He said plants adapt to the verticality and support themselves — Plenty has even grown watermelon, which didn’t start dropping to the floor until they reached 20 pounds.
“There’s nothing that won’t work,” he said. “The question is, do the economics make sense today?”