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Vertical farm Plenty races against the sun

Credit: Reuters Studio
Published on July 5, 2019 - Duration: 04:17s

Vertical farm Plenty races against the sun

Silicon Valley vertical farm Plenty unveiled its newest farm which can produce enough leafy greens to supply over 100 stores.

Its last farm could only serve three stores and some restaurants.

Across the U.S., top vertical farms are making their biggest push ever to scale up.

Jane Lanhee Lee reports.

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Vertical farm Plenty races against the sun

In this industrial zone half an hour drive south of downtown San Francisco, vertical farm Plenty says its newest farm with a growing room the size of a basketball court will be able to serve over 100 grocery stores.

Its last farm could serve only three stores and some restaurants.

Plenty unveiled the farm in June to the media, and while we were allowed to walk around, plenty didn’t want cameras inside and provided this video instead.

It says it’s protecting its secret sauce: robots that put seedlings into long strips that are hung on to the ceiling and moved into this grow room where plants spend 10 days before harvest.

SOUNDBITE) (English) REUTERS REPORTER JANE LANHEE LEE, saying: "I'm Jane Lanhee Lee in South San Francisco at Plenty's farm.

To match the amount of greens that this one room grows outdoors, the company says you would need a field roughly two hundred fifty times the size." It’s not just saving on acreage.

The new factory uses less than 5% of the water traditional farming uses.

It saves on labor with automation and cuts its carbon footprint as it's near the urban center.

Being indoors, it also eliminates the risk of floods, droughts, searing heat or cold that traditional farmers grapple with.

But while machines, electricity, and locations near city centers can be costly, Plenty insists it can produce a product at a competitive price.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) PLENTY CEO MATT BARNARD, saying: "We're competitive with organic today and we're working very hard to continue to make more and more crops grocery store competitive." Top vertical farm growers tell Reuters a drop in LED light prices and automation is pushing down costs and finally giving the high-tech growers a chance at stocking hundreds of stores.

They’ve also been able to speed up the growing process.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) PLENTY CHIEF SCIENTIST NATE STOREY, saying: "So two years ago we were using things like ladybugs, we were using predatory insects that would come in and eat anything if it got into the system.

And today we don't need to use anything.

We use no pesticides.

We don't even have to use things like ladybugs, because we go so fast in our production that we outrace the pests themselves." Vertical farms aren’t just sprouting up in Silicon Valley.

On the East Coast, New York City-based Bowery says it already sells its bounty to dozens of stores and a new farm coming soon will expand that to hundreds.

And Aerofarms in New Jersey said it built its biggest farm to date last year and is doubling its space to meet demand.

Hope of shaking up the agriculture industry has lured in big investors.

Plenty raised $200 million dollars from investors including Softbank, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos and former Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt.

And backers have to be encouraged by the blockbuster success of Beyond Meat.

Shares of the plant-based burger company are up 500% from the IPO price in May.

Still, Michael Rose, an investor in ag tech, says vertical farms are expensive to run and may not be the best solution everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) BETTER FOOD VENTURES PARTNER MICHAEL ROSE, saying: "So if you're looking in the Middle East where they import all of their food and you look at the specific climate there it makes sense to grow sunless indoor and power with solar rays.

Or if you're looking at the mega cluster cities of up to 100 million in China you'd want to be in the urban core because supply, the supply chain is going to be a problem." And then there's the question of taste.

Celebrity chef Nancy Silverton was skeptical when she was recently asked to join Plenty’s culinary advisory board.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) CHEF AND PLENTY BOARD MEMBER NANCY SILVERTON, saying:"I couldn't imagine that produce that was grown indoors on a wall would have any flavor.

But it wasn't until the end of the tour that I was able to taste the produce, that I was sold." Vertical farms say by controlling the light spectrum, some more red light here some more blue light there, they can control the taste of food.

And Plenty, which is planning to stay private for now, says using that technology it grew these perfect strawberries which it hopes to bring to consumers in the future, grown locally away from the sun.

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