Sitting down to dinner in America? The produce on your plate tonight traveled an average of 1,500 miles to get there. And while those fruits and vegetables were being transported on trucks or sitting in distribution centers, they were losing much of the freshness that makes them nutritious and tasty.
This is a problem Plenty is trying to solve.
The indoor farming company has an ambitious goal of opening farms in 500 major metropolitan areas worldwide to provide fresh, nutritious, and — most important — local food to each city.
“We are working to reimagine what farming is, from the ground up,” says Nate Mazonson, Plenty cofounder. “We are a replacement for the entire agriculture supply chain that frankly is serving consumers less and less.”
They will not be your average farm. Each farm, created in indoor spaces approximately the size of a big-box retail store, will grow varieties of greens and fruits along vertical towers that rise 20 feet in the air. Sensors will monitor the plants and measure the crop’s vital signs: humidity, temperature, air pressure, carbon dioxide, nutrient levels, water temperature, and water pH. The data will be collected and analyzed to adjust the growing conditions for each plant. “Vertical farming allows us to deliver to the plant exactly what it wants at any given time,” Mazonson says.
A Plenty farm will average about 100,000 square feet and can grow up to 350 times more produce than a traditional field farm of similar size. It will use 1% as much water, no pesticides, and seeds developed for flavor, not durability to travel long distances.
Plenty launched in 2014 by Mazonson, CEO Matt Barnard, and CSO Nate Storey, all Stanford GSB alumni. They tested their concept at the Silicon Valley campus of a major technology company, where they grew fresh produce for the cafeterias. Then they opened a small R&D facility in Laramie, Wyoming, and a 50,000-square-foot warehouse in South San Francisco. In fall 2017, they announced plans for a 100,000-square-foot facility in Kent, Washington, a few miles outside of Seattle, which will start delivering food to the city in the first half of 2018.
Plenty’s big-name investors include Jeff Bezos’ Bezos Expeditions (Bezos’ Amazon recently acquired Whole Foods) and Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors. It recently landed $200 million in funding led by the SoftBank Vision Fund, one of the largest ever investments in agriculture technology, bringing total funding to date to $238 million.
With that capital investment, the startup hopes to build 500 farms around the world, one in each major city, to supply restaurants, retailers, and caterers with 10-25% of that metro area’s food requirements.
You could give Al Gore some credit for the company’s focus on overhauling the food chain. After watching Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Mazonson says he recognized a harrowing fact: “We are not on a sustainable trajectory as a species.” At Dartmouth at the time, he studied environmental science and engineering focused on climate change, then joined the venture capital world focusing on cleantech companies.
“I spent five years in which my main goal was finding a company that I felt could truly transform how we use and think about water, food, and energy resources,” he said. “And I was feeling frustrated that I was not seeing those truly transformational companies coming out. So I decided I wanted to build that company.”
But he needed more skills to build a company than his engineering degree had provided, so he applied to Stanford GSB, where he worked with faculty like Scott Brady, who teaches Formation of New Ventures and is now an investor in Plenty, and classmates — including his cofounders — who he says both inspired and humbled him.
Before now, Mazonson admits, Plenty’s goals wouldn’t have been feasible. The costs of energy, lighting, and sensors were too high.
“To have attempted this five years ago, the numbers would have looked laughable,” Mazonson says. “Two years ago, it would not have been possible.” But as costs have dropped, the vertical farm has turned from a novelty idea into one with real potential.
Population trends are also pushing farmers to think local. More people are moving into urban environments, says economist Josef Schmidhuber of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and vertical farms and urban agriculture are a solution to feeding these populations.
Smart farms “only fit where you have a lot of capital, a lot of know-how, but not necessarily a lot of labor,” Schmidhuber says. “That limits it to urban settings.” At the same time, he says, urban dwellers have a unique nutrition issue — they eat too many processed convenience foods and are more likely to suffer from obesity than malnourishment. “Urban agriculture offers the perfect solution to this because it makes available fresh, safe, and affordable food.”
One major challenge for these high-tech farms is hiring. To open 500 farms, Plenty will need a lot of specialized help. “This is an interdisciplinary problem, so it requires expertise in plant science, mechanical engineering, computer science, marketing, and business savvy,” Mazonson says. “We are looking for a variety of backgrounds. We have many, many open positions on our website.”
The company has about 150 employees already, and finding people attracted to their mission has not been hard, Mazonson says.
“What Plenty is doing is growing consistent, safe, reliable, tasty, nutritious product that can be harvested in our farm and then delivered to the shelf within hours or minutes,” Mazonson says. “And that is just a fundamental paradigm shift relative to what we have in the industry today.”
This is a multi-part series on the future of food.