Indoor AgTech spoke to Nate Storey, Co-Founder & Chief Science Officer at Plenty on the company’s mission for consumers to access affordable indoor-grown produce, the challenges of the vertical farming model, private investment opportunities and new food experiences.
Plenty is on a mission to democratize access to affordable indoor-grown produce. What needs to happen for indoor growing systems to deliver more nutritious food at everyday prices that match other products in store?
We see firsthand how transportation impacts the quality, nutritional value, and cost of the food people purchase today. Indoor farming can improve all of these factors by growing food much closer to where people live, saving thousands of miles and weeks off the journey from harvest to home and winning the hearts and minds of consumers. To make indoor-grown fruits and vegetables truly ubiquitous requires ongoing collaboration between the industry and retailers to adapt the existing distribution model, in-store experience, and how consumers interact with their produce for a new mode of agricultural production.
The Indoor AgTech summit will take place in New York, home to some of the first movers in urban farming. What’s impressed you most about the rise of indoor ag so far, and where can this go next?
When you’re in the industry it can feel like things are moving slowly but looking at it from the outside it is moving quite fast, especially with the rise of so many indoor farming companies who have made an impact over the last decade. I’m faced every week with new efficiency solutions, which is incredible. The efficiency of LEDs, data storage, and AI are all increasing, while costs are dropping. These are primary technology inputs in an indoor growing system that are changing at an incredible rate. A huge focus moving forward will be on how the industry can best harness these massive increases in efficiencies.
You’re delivering the keynote session “Nourishing Cities of Tomorrow” at Indoor AgTech. How does food distribution need to change to incorporate indoor-grown produce, so it becomes part of the everyday food network?
Traditional food distribution logistics are incredibly complex, with produce typically undergoing 14 hand-offs from the time it leaves the farm to when it reaches the consumer. As more local producers grow food for their local communities we’ll naturally see a more streamlined distribution system. Instead of hundreds of different farms shipping across the country and overseas, we’ll see a system where the producers are much closer to the distributor and consumer, increasing quality while reducing waste and costs.
The existing model doesn’t serve most specialty crops well, such as particular herbs or seasonal items which the general population consumes less frequently. These incur higher logistic costs, which typically get passed on to the consumer. With more local production, the opportunity to increase the availability of these specialty foods improves facilitating lower volumes with fewer logistic constraints. Indoor growers are going to be able to become more granular with the type of crops we can offer locally.
The ability to offer a product mix that is more localized will enable us to serve the unique regional demands of individual communities, which is super-exciting both for producers and for our cultural heritage, so much of which is tied up in the food traditions we share with our family and children.
Consumers are going to play a huge role in adopting the new food experience offered by indoor farming. How can operators work with their retail and food-service partners to communicate the benefits, challenge the misconceptions and drive demand?
When you build strong relationships with retailers and consumers you have the ability to communicate your values much more clearly to the consumer, the person that actually eats the food. It’s important to work on messaging around values: ‘this is what we believe’ and ‘why we do what we do.’
People are responding incredibly positively to new food experiences. They’re getting something they’ve never been able to have in the past: truly fresh, nutritious, and affordable food. The simplest possible message is this: when we grow things very close to the consumer and put them on the shelf within hours, the freshness, flavor, color and nutrition is immediately obvious. Indoor growers are bringing consumers something so incredibly different that we believe the product will speak for and stand by itself.
What is the role of the private investment community and Governments to support the growth of indoor farming?
Advocacy and support both by the investment community and governments are crucial for indoor farming to succeed. Indoor farms require considerable capital to deploy at scale, while expanding a business into any new region, domestically or internationally, requires close collaboration with and cooperation by municipal governments. It’s been very exciting to witness the welcome and enthusiasm with which communities and their corresponding local officials have approached us. Given indoor farms are so different than traditional agriculture from the perspective of inspections, permitting, administration, and more, it’s crucial that we work closely with governments at the local and federal levels.
Where do you see the opportunities to expand internationally?
Anywhere with a large urban population will be a natural home for indoor farming. As an operator, we’ll be looking at where the most consumers are based, what their needs are, and where there are acute deficits of healthy, affordable and nutritious food. That opens up much of the globe, so it simply becomes a matter of prioritization.
Every week my beliefs are challenged in fundamental ways. With machine learning, I’m amazed by the changes we make at a sustainable farm level that defy traditional agriculture learnings. The ability to leverage software to make meaningful decisions around cultivation and how we optimize our growing environments is phenomenal.
In building farm after farm around the world we’re now seeing an operations team that is training a management team. We’re becoming a company that can build companies and I’m really proud of that. It’s an exciting field to be working in and every week there is a new achievement. With so many wins it’s hard to pick one but a key success has to be the significant energy savings we’ve achieved from when we first started.
What technologies are going to be key to ensure the success of indoor and vertical farming?
We group technologies within three key areas: energy efficiency, labor efficiency, and optimization. With energy efficiency, the significant improvements in LEDs and semiconductors directly drive the economics toward lower costs. Labor efficiency – automation systems to minimize damage and maintain flavor and quality, ultimately getting the product to the consumer faster. Optimization happens primarily through the application of software. It’s important we constantly train and optimize our software to make the best, most dynamic decisions in real time.
Finally, who are you looking to connect with at the Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit in Brooklyn? What opportunities does the meeting offer for Plenty?
We like connecting with a lot of different industry players whether they are producers, retailers, distributors, or consumers. Everyone has unique information to offer and I’m spending a lot of time talking with people who can help us advance the technology of our farms. I hope to meet individuals in all these categories at Indoor AgTech!
Nate Storey will deliver the keynote session on Nourishing Cities of Tomorrow at Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit in New York at 6pm on June 20.
To learn more about Plenty, visit plenty.ag/sf.