I remember returning from a trend trip to the United Kingdom in the early 1990s and flagging the emergence of the organic food movement hitting mainstream grocery stores.
Admittedly, England wasn’t known for its food back then, but the likes of Duchy Originals, Pret A Manger, Waitrose, and Marks & Spencer were leading the charge for more nutritious consumer options. Fast-forward to the present day, and America is finally catching on to the importance of product ingredients and origins. There is no doubt that we are witnessing the beginning of a dynamic food revolution in the United States. Major food companies are turning to artisanal and organic startups for inspiration, and retail grocers are being forced to change the way they think. With Whole Foods and Sprouts continuing their expansion, Walmart and Target embracing new formats, and Amazon Fresh entering the scene, service and innovation are likely to accelerate.
Over the past few years we’ve been very fortunate to work on a range of food-related engagements and projects, and as a result understand the complexities that surround ingredient, agricultural, distribution and supply chain issues. While working with companies like Kashi, Annie’s, Plum Organics, The Honest Kitchen and Bolthouse Farms, we understand how progressive food companies are thinking about the role more nutritious, whole foods play in the marketplace. While the food movement is gaining momentum, it might surprise you to learn that food production is actually declining as our planet’s population is exploding. And, while there are plenty of startups innovating and inspiring new types of food, we also need to think differently about how we grow, transport and store our food.
Food is a $3 trillion industry worldwide, but has evolved very slowly relative to other sectors like medicine, communication and transportation. Traditional farming hasn’t experienced much innovation, it is still very much like it was when it was developed in ancient Sumeria–dig a hole, plant a seed and pump water into a field or pray for rain.
I met Steve Fambro last year and he’s what you’d call a next-century thinker. He’s a humble, understated man, who inspires an instant sense of confidence. He’s your quintessential geek engineer, but with a very evident artistic-poetic side. Steve is the founder of Famgro, a new type of farm. Not so long ago he was in the checkout line of his local natural grocer, Jimbo’s, and as the cashier was scanning his produce he asked himself why organic is so important (to avoid pesticides and GMO’s) and so expensive? It was the second question that sent him down the rabbit hole discovering that labor is the largest cost behind organic farming. Steve figured that if he and his team could leverage their lab automation experience they might be able to build a farming platform that requires much less labor than traditional farming. By doing so, he believed he could lower the fundamental cost structure of organic food and make it affordable to everyone, not just the affluent few.
Famgro grows food in places where it otherwise couldn’t be grown, or where there is a need for fresh, local food. They offer an amazing solution: enabling food production where it can’t exist because of resource constraints. Whether it’s availability of land, water, favorable weather, light, or labor, they enable food production by drastically reducing the need for those variables. Using the same environmental footprint as a Prius, Famgro can grow almost as much food in one year as a full acre of farmland. While there are greenhouses and other forms of hydroponics widely used today, Famgro is different–they build and operate an enterprise level farming system in a warehouse setting and then sell their own branded produce. Today they grow and sell sweet-kale, pac-choi and a variety of micro-greens, with plans to expand their offerings to a variety of lettuces and greens. Steve and his team are a new style of farmer selling fresh, organic produce, and to accomplish this they just so happen to have designed and built the most efficient farms in the world.
Famgro offers a range of transformational opportunities for both retail partners and food manufacturers. Amazon can’t easily plant a 1,000 acre farm in every market it plans to launch Amazon Fresh, and they’re not in the business of growing produce locally near all of their distribution centers. Today they have to truck fresh produce across the country. With Famgro farms as a partner in each of their key markets they can grow and sell local fresh-picked produce wherever they are, reducing transportation costs and increasing margins. By moving food production close to the distribution centers, Famgro enables the local production of fresh greens in all corners of the world, removing logistics, weather, water and labor as a variable in the cost of production, with the potential to offer the option of local, fresh, better-than-organic food to all corners of the globe.
Steve keeps The Emperor’s Handbook Marcus Aurelius: A New Translation of the Meditations by his nightstand. He appreciates the classical stoic philosophy because it appeals to logic and reason. One of his favorite quotes says essentially: This is your lot–sort it out, get on with it and be pleasant about it.
As I listened to Steve tell his story, I realized he belongs to the tribe of inspiring people who roam the world with their eyes and minds wide open. When they find a problem and realize it’s an opportunity for change and progress, they apply all of their efforts to it. Steve looked at the status quo, and rather than being frustrated or overwhelmed by it, he pulled it apart one piece at a time to understand the entire system. He then proceeded to redesign the system into a more productive and efficient process. Some would say Steve applied systems-thinking to solve the problem, but I like to think he applied “uncommon sense” with a single-minded dose of passion and persistence to design a new kind of farm.