Local. Fresher. More sustainable. These are some of the demands from customers, having an ever-increasing importance on what they’re purchasing at the grocery store. As someone who was in the horticulture industry for a number of years, I’ve seen firsthand how hydroponic technologies can answer many of these calls.
Hydroponics, or the growing of plants without soil in a controlled environment, can promise fresh produce 365 days a year. In any part of the country, truly local produce becomes an option, cutting down on transportation times and reaching the grocer in a fresher state.
Eliminating outside factors, farmers can grow everything from tomatoes to strawberries to leafy greens without pesticides or herbicides, using 95%-plus less water and with a much lower risk of foodborne illness. In a world where food recalls increased 10% between 2013 and 2018 — according to the nonpartisan Public Interest Research Group — this sounds like a promising technology.
A Greener Era
Hydroponics has been around for centuries, but its use in retail, restaurants and foodservice is now exploding. Shoppers can likely find hydroponically grown greens on shelves in their favorite supermarkets, right next to those grown conventionally.
There are also an increasing number of players in this space. Gotham Greens has grown from one greenhouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., to eight sprawling facilities in some of the largest urban areas in the country, including a 20,000-square-foot location on top of a Whole Foods Market store.
Ohio-based startup 80 Acres Farms has taken its indoor robotic farming vertical, further minimizing the amount of space needed to maximize yield. 80 Acres Farms’ sister company Infinite Acres, which designs and builds farms for customers around the world, entered into a noteworthy partnership last year with Ocado Group — yes, the same U.K.-based online grocery retailer powering 20 automated customer fulfillment centers across the United States for The Kroger Co.
Venture capital-backed Plenty’s new high-tech farm outside of San Francisco, called Tigris, is an epicenter of robotics and technology, with no humans touching the crops at any point of harvest. The farm can reportedly supply enough greens for 100 grocery stores, and its greens are carried by Safeway and Whole Foods in the area, with a new farm slated to open in Compton, Calif., in 2020.
Right at Store Level
These companies, along with many others, are on a mission to prove the economics and scalability of hydroponic farming. Germany-based Infarm, however, seems to be working on making even the last few feet of produce delivery local.
Infarm has partnered with Kroger to add modular vertical farming systems to 15 QFC stores in the Pacific Northwest. These modules take up about 20 square feet, look like refrigerators, and actually provide all of the light and nutrients to grow in the supermarket. They’re monitored remotely through a cloud-based platform that uses machine learning to continue improving the system.
Similar modules, such as those from Brooklyn-based startup Farmshelf, are already operating in restaurants and universities across the country.
Hydroponics is now playing a huge role in the produce in people’s shopping carts and on people’s plates, and it will inevitably be important in the future of food.