On September 28, Forward Greens – an indoor farm based in Vancouver, Washington – announced it would be partnering with grocery chains Safeway and Albertsons to sell its salad mixes in stores in Oregon and Washington.
The move is a significant win for the company and underscores the growing influence of indoor farming as a whole.
Typically, indoor farms have only been able to meet the demand for smaller plants – mostly herbs – but as outdoor farm yields become less constant and consumer preference for sustainability and local supply chains grows, large suppliers have begun to increase the appeal of indoor farms. Recognize agriculture.
Forward Greens founder Ken Kaneko. Photo: Sander Gusinow
Indoor farms show their potential due to their ability to stack plant beds, often called “vertical farms”, due to the significantly lower consumption of resources, faster maturing times and longer product shelf life. Even without receiving the generous subsidies from conventional farms, existing indoor farms are growing and penetrating the vegetable market like never before.
Ken Kaneko, founder and CEO of Forward Greens, got the idea for the business on a business trip to Japan, where indoor farming is much more popular – and he wants to compete with conventional farms.
To further scale its operations, Kaneko designed the vertical irrigation system with easily accessible bulk parts like PVC pipes.
Leafy green vegetables grow under the LED lighting at Forward Greens. Photo: Sander Gusinow
“Other indoor growers use niche parts and techniques that cannot be scaled up. Our pallet racking system uses the most widely available parts in the world. If you bring a warehouse worker here, they will be very comfortable, ”he says.
For large suppliers, the appeal of vertical farming is that it can be far more efficient than conventional farming.
Forward Greens only uses 5% of the water that a conventional farm needs to produce the same amount of food. It also produces them faster. And depending on the crop, plants can mature in half the conventional time under controlled greenhouse conditions.
At Forward Greens, a conveyor belt processes lettuce greens. Photo: Sander Gusinow
And because vertical farms can be located in urban warehouses, the distance to vendors is shorter – which can add up to a week to the best before date.
Perhaps most importantly, indoor burial tubs don’t have to lie fallow between plantings. Vertical farmers can reuse their acreage immediately.
“It’s pretty remarkable when you add up all the numbers,” says Kaneko.
Green rows are chilled by fans at Live Local Organic in Milwaukie. Photo Live Local Bio
Vertical farming is not without its challenges. A 2019 study by Wageningen University in the Netherlands found that while vertical farming significantly reduces water, land use and CO2 emissions, it also requires more electricity due to the need for ventilation and humidification.
Kaneko has already set his eyes on growing a variety of crops, including shallots and peppers. But while any vegetable can hypothetically be grown indoors, leafy vegetables like pak choi, kale, and Swiss chard tend to be the easiest to grow vertically.
However, larger, slightly crushed plants like eggplants can be damaged if a chassis is not installed under the container. Vine plants – such as watermelons, pumpkins, and cucumbers – are naturally pollinated on the outside, but must be hand-pollinated on the inside.
Other plants don’t always look what customers expect. Anyone who has grown carrots knows the stocky, nasty shapes the vegetables can take when they come out of the ground; conventional farmers often grow them in molds to give them the long, tubular shape that customers expect – but that doesn’t work well on an indoor farm.
Political headwinds also speak against them. A 2019 paper published by Duke University’s Nicholas School of The Environment states that “vertical farming is unlikely to thrive” unless it receives the same subsidy options as conventional farms.
But COVID-19 and global supply chain disruptions may have forced the problem. Kaneko says global supply chain disruptions recently have forced large suppliers to think about large local suppliers.
“People are talking more than ever about supply chains,” he says. “You see that your company’s business model could be at risk if supply chains are interrupted.”
Ken Kaneko poses in front of his Vertical Farming System. Photo: Sander Gusinow
That is not to say that indoor farms could not find public support. Due to the drastically lower CO2 footprint of indoor agriculture, environmental funds are already committed to this.
Live Local Organic, an indoor farm in Milwaukie, has also started offering microgreens in select New Seasons markets. Funding opportunities, including the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) and support from the Oregon Energy Trust, gave the company the opportunity to expand. Before that, the farm grew herbs such as basil.
The company is also in talks with QFC about selling its products in stores.
Joel Kelly, Founder and COO of Live Local Organic, anticipates scaling to be completed in the next year – a project that will include building it up to use more vertical space and increase plant density.
Joel Kelly, Founder and COO of Live Local Organic. Photo: Live Local Organic
If vertical farms can continue to demonstrate their merits over large vendors, most of these problems will be resolved over time. Perhaps the biggest challenge in vertical farming is the fact that everyone is still busy figuring it out. Best practices in lighting, watering, stacking, and plant diversity are still being discussed.
Currently, the indoor farming field is a wild west of diverse ideas and best practices.
“The market is currently very fragmented. Everyone thinks they found out the secret sauce. It’s a challenge because a lot of people in the industry claim to be experts but don’t really know what they’re talking about, ”says Kelly.
Kelly, who teaches indoor farming classes, says there is a lot of misinformation in the industry about what works and what doesn’t, often from former vertical farmers using techniques from failed vertical farms.
Kaneko agreed, saying that “tribal knowledge” doesn’t really exist in the industry yet.
However, both founders admitted that vertical farmers can learn a lot from each other. As soon as more players enter the room to a sufficient extent, the exchange of ideas could go fast.
“We don’t compete with each other, we compete with mega-farms and Monsanto,” says Kelly. “The innovation is only just beginning to get hot. We are at the very beginning of this industry. It will explode in five years. “
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