San Francisco startup Plenty takes vertical farming to new heights
- Plenty, an indoor agriculture company based in San Francisco, claims it has found a way to make vertical farming scalable and profitable, according to Vox.
- The company uses ultra-efficient grow methods to produce 350 times as much produce per acre as conventional farming, and using just 1% of the amount of water. According to Vox, this is more than twice as much production as the next leading production level in the vertical farming industry.
- Plenty operates a growing warehouse in San Francisco and plants to build one outside Seattle next year capable of producing 4.5 million pounds of greens per year. The company ultimately hopes to place grow facilities near every city in the world with one million or more residents.
For years, vertical farms have been touted as the future of agriculture — a way to grow food efficiently using a fraction of the space of conventional farmland. And for years, startup operations have hemorrhaged money before eventually going out of business.
Labor and energy are the two main costs that vertical farms struggle to overcome. Startups also pay high real estate costs, often fail to adequately use data, and frequently have a shaky go-to-market strategy. There are, in other words, numerous ways to fail in the promising but very low-margin field.
Plenty doesn’t offer a new approach to vertical farming but rather a more refined one. As an example, Vox writer David Roberts highlights Plenty’s grow walls. Rather than use stacks of horizontal planters, as many vertical farms do, Plenty employs 20-foot grow walls packed with greens. Water and nutrients pour down the walls, meaning the company is using gravity instead of expensive pumps to feed its greens, and makes sure to trap any water and condensation that filters down and recycle it.
Plenty uses automation whenever possible, including tiny robots called “Schleppers” that move seedlings around. The company is also obsessive about tracking and maintaining optimal growing conditions. Its San Francisco warehouse has 7,500 cameras and 35,000 sensors to monitor temperature and numerous other metrics.
As it scales, Plenty claims it will be able to offer competitively priced produce to stores around the country. It will also have the selling point of being locally grown and very flavorful.
But will Plenty deliver, or is it just another company making big promises? Potential pitfalls abound, including high real estate costs and quality control. Plenty’s model is built around achieving massive scale, and getting there will require lots of money and minimal mistakes.
As Roberts points out, if Plenty doesn’t succeed, another company likely will. Bright Farms and Gotham Greens are two other outfits that are refining the model, and that have partnered with retailers to offer branded, locally sourced greens. Vertical farming carries the promise of local, flavorful, efficiently produced fruits and vegetables, and a large payoff for whoever can make it efficient and scalable enough.
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