Five years ago, FarmedHere launched its first vertical farm in a 90,000-foot abandoned warehouse near Chicago. Now, with 200 retail customers, and a model they say could work anywhere, they’re planning to expand across the United States, beginning with a network of 18 indoor farms selling local food in major cities.
“We want to be the national local brand,” says Matt Matros, who became CEO of the company in July, and previously ran a Protein Bar, a national chain of healthy fast food restaurants. “We can touch 75% of the country with 18 farms.”
In its current Chicago farm, the company grows organic greens and herbs under long glowing rows of LED lights, and sells the produce to stores within 200 miles (Whole Foods is a customer). As they expand, they’re choosing cities where they can reach the most people within the same radius.
“The reason why 200 miles is important is because we can farm and harvest our produce and then have it to a grocery store in under 24 hours,” says Matros. “And that’s a really important number to us, because if you think about traditional produce, which is grown in California, they harvest, and you’re not eating it for three weeks.”
Beyond saving the carbon emissions created by trucking lettuce or kale across the country, local farming can improve the nutrition of produce. “If you harvest something and consume it right away, it’s far more nutritious than if you harvest something and consume it 14 days later,” he says. “Indoor local farms tend to be about 50% more nutritious than our outdoor counterparts on major vitamins–A,C, E, niacin, iron–that’s mostly just because it’s consumed as soon as possible.”
Like other indoor farms, the hydroponic and aquaponic growing methods that FarmedHere uses can save the majority of the water that would be used to grow crops traditionally in the field. It can potentially supplement or even partially replace agriculture struggling with drought.
“There are some people who are so cynical, they think California is going to run out of water in the next two years, and vertical farming is going to have to replace traditional farming,” says Matros. “I tend not to be one of those cynics. We’re going to do the best we can, grow and sell as much as we can, and we just hope we can help try to feed the 9 billion people who are going to be on the planet by the end of this century.”
As indoor growing systems, like LED light technology, quickly advance, the company believes that vertical farming is finally ready to scale. To help business grow, they plan to offer local food products–like baby food and salad dressing–made from their crops, along with the vegetables themselves.
“Farms are like any other manufacturer, but they have two big problems,” says Matros. “If you’re a DVD manufacturer, for example, and Walmart orders 1,000 DVD players, you can just work a shift overnight and pump out 1,000. We’re a little bit different. We’re a manufacturing plant that what we grow has a long production planning cycle, and it also has a short shelf life.”
If the farm has an order from Whole Foods for 1,000 pounds of basil and doesn’t have it, it takes them 35 days to grow. Then they have to sell it immediately, because it only lasts for 14 days. “Thinking about those two dynamics, what I thought we could do is if we put our fresh produce inside certain products, it essentially extends the shelf life,” he says.
As FarmedHere expands, it won’t be the only large chain of vertical farms. AeroFarms, which is building a massive indoor farm in a vacant New Jersey factory, plans to build 25 farms over the next five years. Spread, a vertical farming company in Japan, is opening robot-run indoor farms. While FarmedHere has a few differences–it’s the only indoor farm currently certified organic, for example–Matros believes there’s more than enough room in the market for anyone who wants create vertical farms.
The company is currently working with real estate agents to find land in cities across the country. After building out farms in the U.S., FarmedHere plans to expand globally, perhaps beginning in China, where pollution threatens outdoor crops. “There’s a substantive need for this,” Matros says. “In northern Africa, where there’s not a lot of access to fresh clean water . . . in China and India, where there’s just a lot of people. That’s the beauty of this industry. Once we crack the code in the U.S., we can easily just drop these modules anywhere around the world.”