At a new vertical farm inside a warehouse in San Jose, consumers can subscribe to their own “plot,” where kale and mizuna grow under LED lights. It’s the 21st-century version of a CSA: Greens grow in towers with no pesticides and almost no water—and when they’re harvested, they’re delivered directly to consumers living within a 20-mile radius.
Willo, the startup behind the farm, wants to push people to adopt healthier eating habits. “Diet kills more people than anything else every year in the United States,” says Samuel Bertram, Willo cofounder and CEO. The promise of indoor farming—that it’s possible to grow produce in any climate at any time, deliver that food locally while it’s at the peak of freshness, and eventually sell it for less than conventionally grown greens—is something that he thinks could help convince more people to eat vegetables regularly.
The startup is one of several that are developing technology to make warehouse-grown kale and lettuce compete with greens grown in fields, both to deliver the freshest possible produce and to shrink the environmental footprint of food, since indoor farming uses little water, less land, and avoids the need for pesticides. Nearby, a startup called Plenty has developed a fully automated system for planting, growing, and harvesting produce. On the East Coast, startups like Bowery and Aerofarms are developing technology of their own.
Willo has its own approach, growing plants aeroponically—meaning that the roots are exposed in the air and sprayed with a mist of water—on vertical walls, which Bertram says is “faster and more resource-efficient than our hydroponic and horizontal-plane counterparts.” The company has also tweaked other parts of the system; LED lights, for example, can be robotically moved around the farm to provide the right spectrum of light to each plant at any given time. Each plant is monitored by cameras and sensors that help the company learn how to improve growth and nutrition over time.
The startup’s business model is also unique. Rather than relying solely on sales to restaurants and grocery stores, it’s betting on a subscription model. Consumers will pay $149 a month for their own plot, where the farm will grow the salad greens and herbs that a particular consumer has ordered, and will get five weekly custom salads. A $99 subscription delivers five salads every two weeks. (The cost will go down over time; the company claims that the technology it has designed makes the production system cheaper than other vertical farms.) Because the company wants to reconnect people with the origins of their food, customers will be able to take tours of the farm. The startup also plans to connect subscribers with an online portal that shows time-lapse images of their plot, with data about the plants and nutrition.
The new farm in San Jose will begin making deliveries to new subscribers in August. It hopes to expand to other West Coast cities, and eventually to cities globally. “As soon as we show farm-level profitability, which is what we expect to show in the next 12 months, we can plant these facilities in every city in the United States and around the world to feed people locally sourced, fresh and sustainable nutritious product,” Bertram says. “That is the goal.” Other indoor farming startups have made similar promises about rapid expansion that haven’t yet materialized. But as the technology continues to improve, that may begin to change.