Vertical farming — growing crops indoors, using vertical space to intensify production.
Its virtues, relative to conventional agriculture.
Indoors, the climate can be controlled year-round. Pests can be minimized, and with them pesticides. Water and nutrients can be applied in precise quantities. By going up rather than out, a vertical farm can produce more food per acre of land. And by siting close to an urban area, it can reduce long distribution chains, getting fresher food to customers’ tables, quicker.
Its drawbacks have become equally clear. They mainly come down to cost. Farming well requires deep know-how and expertise; it has proven extraordinarily difficult to expand vertical farms in a way that holds quality consistent while driving costs down. Optimizing production at a small scale is very different from doing so at a large scale. The landscape is littered with the corpses of vertical-farming startups that thought they could beat the odds (though several are still alive and kicking).
Now a young Silicon Valley startup called Plenty thinks it has cracked the code. It has enormous expansion plans and a bank account full of fresh investor funding, but most excitingly, it plans to build a 100,000 square foot vertical-farming warehouse this year in Kent, Washington, just outside of Seattle, your author’s home town. That farm is expected to produce 4.5 million pounds of greens annually. Your author, in keeping with coastal elitist stereotypes, is a fervent lover of greens.
Plenty is at the center of a veritable hurricane of buzz at the moment.
It checks all the boxes: It recently got a huge round of funding ($200 million in July, the largest ag-tech investment in history), including some through Jeff Bezos’s investment firm, so it has the capital to scale; it is leaning heavily on machine learning and AI; it has endorsements from several Michelin-rated chefs (“I’ve never had anything of this quality,” a former sous-chef at French Laundry, Anthony Secviar, told Bloomberg); it is in talks with several large distributors in the US and abroad; heck, it even lured away the director of battery technology at Tesla, Kurt Kelty, to be executive of operations and development. (You’re nothing in Silicon Valley without an ex-Tesla exec.)