Cultivating Better Produce With Hydroponics

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Cultivating Better Produce With Hydroponics

Cultivating Better Produce With Hydroponics

By Abby Kleckler - 09/14/2020

Traditional soil-grown crop production has worked well for thousands of years, but there’s one fact that has placed strain on conventional agriculture: The human population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. With that comes a demand that already stressed fields can’t necessarily supply.

Key Takeaways

  • With a steadily rising world population, vertical farming offers a way to meet demand for  enough food to feed the planet.
  • Backed by venture capitalists, hydroponic companies use water instead of soil to grow produce that has become popular with consumers.
  • These companies are now figuring out how to scale their operations.

“We need traditional farming, and traditional farming is going to have to produce at maximum capacity for all of eternity, for all of the future,” says Nate Storey, who is the co-founder and chief science officer of San Francisco-based vertical farming company Plenty Inc. “One of the issues that we have is that we cannot produce enough. We only produce half to two-thirds of what we actually need just to meet demand.”

Plenty and many other ag tech operations are hoping to bridge the gap between supply and demand by growing in highly controlled indoor environments instead of traditional outdoor methods. These hydroponic companies, which use water instead of soil, have been securing huge funding from venture capitalists, and the produce they yield has become highly popular among consumers.

Hydroponic farming comes in a variety of formats, but all boast benefits such as an ability to pivot quickly, a cleaner crop, a hyperlocal supply chain and a more sustainable operation than traditional farming. Now, many of these companies are figuring out one of the most important components to their viability: scale. 

Ability to Shift

Plenty's vertical farms feature walls that are two to three times more space efficient than if the company had just stacked the crops.
Plenty's vertical farms feature walls that are two to three times more space efficient than if the company had just stacked the crops.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of stress on the industry’s supply chain, and not just for hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Shoppers have also loaded up on produce, meat and center store items as they took to consuming more from supermarkets when restaurants were ordered to close their doors. 

“COVID has merely highlighted the inefficiencies and difficulties of our current food and ag system,” says Sonia Lo, CEO of Santa Monica, Calif.-based ag tech company Sensei Ag. “We saw bare grocery shelves. We saw suppliers and farmers unable to pivot away from choices that they’d been forced to make in terms of crop selection and routes to market, generally two years before the crisis hit, because that’s the usual timeframe that we all have to work to as farmers.”

Indoor growing methods like those in action at Sensei Ag’s pilot farm on the Hawaiian island of Lana’i don’t have to follow this two-year cycle to get crops into the market. Instead, the farms can pivot much more quickly, not only in times of crisis but also in their everyday operations. 

Sensei Ag has two main mantras, according to Lo: First, be good farmers; second, don’t grow food that people won’t eat.

Sonia Lo, CEO of Sensei Ag
Sonia Lo, CEO of Sensei Ag

“If you see that something is not selling, or people are not interested in it, or they think it’s weird or it doesn’t taste very good, if you are a conventional farmer, and even if you’re a standard indoor grower, it’s going to take you 18 months to pivot,” says Lo. “Our goal is to be able to pivot much more quickly.” 

Getting these farms up and running can also happen much more quickly than clearing fields and tilling the soil to make it suitable as productive farmland. As companies like Sensei Ag and Plenty think about expansion, this new form of farming offers a lot of advantages by being able to scale quickly to meet demand. 

“We can basically build the building, put our equipment in the building, train all of the local folks that will be manning the farm, and get it going in pretty short order,” Plenty’s Storey says. “We’re looking at a matter of months, as opposed to years, to get farms going and running and operating.”

Inside the Farms

These new hydroponic farms come in a variety of formats. For example, Sensei Ag primarily uses the nutrient film technique (NFT) system at its farm in Lana’i, with shallow channels of tubing providing nutrients, while at Plenty’s largest farm to date, near San Francisco, plants are grown in two-sided walls that are more than 16 feet tall. 

The technology in these large-scale, high-tech operations sets them apart from outdoor farming and even other indoor growing methods. 

Sensei Ag primarily uses the nutrient film technique (NFT) system, in which shallow channels of tubing provide nutrients to crops, at its farm on the Hawaiian island of Lana’i.
Sensei Ag primarily uses the nutrient film technique (NFT) system, in which shallow channels of tubing provide nutrients to crops, at its farm on the Hawaiian island of Lana’i.

Sensei Ag was founded by Larry Ellison, co-founder of the multinational computer technology powerhouse Oracle Corp., and Dr. David Agus, a leading oncologist and scientist at the University of Southern California. Even this partnership is a testament to Sensei Ag’s focus on both the technology and the science of growing. 

Lo notes that Sensei Ag is focusing on artificial intelligence in regard to plant health, plant yield and the nutritional aspects of a crop by using extremely high-end cameras. 

“The cameras are able to see from quite a distance how a vegetable is structured, and from that, we can detect moisture content, we can detect the level of chlorophyll, we can detect levels of certain parameters that we would be looking for to determine that plant health, but also to determine, for example, the amount of lycopene,” Lo explains. “Because we use all of this technology, the plants should taste spectacular and look spectacular all year round.”

Plenty looked to the field for a lot of inspiration when designing its farms, resulting in those really large planes to grow its products on, with walls that are two to three times more space efficient than if the company had just stacked things up, according to Storey. The farm features a lot of sensors that tell the farmers what’s happening, and how. 

Plenty’s hydroponic greens, grown indoors in vertical farms, are already sold by Albertsons and other retailers, but according to the company, it has built a platform for growing other kinds of crops as well.
Plenty’s hydroponic greens, grown indoors in vertical farms, are already sold by Albertsons and other retailers, but according to the company, it has built a platform for growing other kinds of crops as well.

“It could be anything from light levels, to nutrient solution, temperatures, to how many towers have been processed and how many have been transmitted,” Storey says. “Pretty much everything is automatic, so the humans in the farm are not touching the plants that much.”

A Better Product

Not having to touch the plants in each stage of harvest is one of the ways that ag tech companies can produce a cleaner crop. 

“The more you can minimize human contact with the vegetable, the better,” Lo says. “The product, because it has a relatively low bacterial count on its leaves or on its surface as it leaves the farm means that the decay cycle is much more prolonged, so it’ll last on a shelf for 20 days, 30 days, as opposed to three.” 

The longer shelf life is also driven by hyperlocal production. These farms are being positioned near distribution hubs and nearest to the people that need them. 

Nate Storey, co-founder and chief science officer, Plenty Inc.
Nate Storey, co-founder and chief science officer, Plenty Inc.

“There are very few people that argue with the idea that something that was picked sooner to the date the consumer eats it, something that’s grown closer, is something that folks want,” Storey says. “It’s important to us both from a quality standpoint as well as a distribution function.”

Many hydroponic growers are going to market with leafy greens, and Plenty is no different. The company struck a deal with Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons Cos. in August to carry Plenty’s Baby‌ ‌Arugula, Baby‌ ‌Kale‌, Crispy‌ ‌Lettuce‌ and Mizuna‌ ‌Mix in more than 430 stores across California. The technology, however, goes beyond greens.

“What we built is a platform. It’s a platform for growing lots of different kinds of crops, not just growing one kind of crop,” Storey says. “But when we think about the future, we see an almost unlimited opportunity for new crops. I really get excited about things like strawberries and tomatoes, and some of the other crops that we have in the pipeline to develop and release.”

Sensei Ag is going to market with leafy greens in early September, and then will have tomatoes and cucumbers toward the end of the month. Lo is also looking to go beyond what’s traditionally being grown in hydroponic operations to include fats and carbohydrates.

“I think we are going to have to eat more plants,” Lo predicts. “I think we’re going to have to design nutritionally relevant meals that are plant-based, and we have to be cognizant of that as we figure out our crop mix going forward.”