Drawing from his background as an electrical engineer, Steve Fambro, founder and chief executive officer of Oceanside, Calif.-based Famgro Farms, has tried to eliminate as much variability in leafy green production as possible.
The result is an indoor technological platform that optimizes crop production by trying to provide all of the plants’ needs in terms of lighting, nutrition, humidity, air flow and moisture.
“It uses hydroponics that we have developed and patented and it uses LEDs that we manufacture and patented, but those are just parts of the story,” Fambro said. “I don’t consider this vertical farming. Our goal is so much more.”
Instead, he thinks of it as a systems approach that meshes with his personal philosophy of providing affordable, locally grown produce.
The indoor operation consists of 10 individual farms, each about the size of a parking space that a Toyota Prius would occupy. Together, they produce leafy green yields equivalent to those from 5 to 10 acres of open fields, Fambro said.
The farm grows myriad leafy greens, ranging from its signature sweet kale to microgreens and herbs.
The kale, marketed under Famgro Farms' own label, is touted as having a buttery texture that eats more like lettuce.
“It’s not unlike Kobe beef,” Fambro said of its tenderness.
Although the operation does produce kale microgreens, its forte is full-grown leaves.
“The reason for that is chefs like the savoy, bumpy leaves and they can plate it in different ways,” he said.
For each crop, the company has developed a specific production system that caters to that plant’s individual needs.
The kale crop, for example, spends just 15 days as seedlings and another 15 days in the farm under intense lighting before harvest.
All of the crops are grown in an enclosed building designed to exclude insects, weeds and diseases. Sanitary procedures along the way help to minimize pathogens.
As a result, Fambro said they don’t use any pesticides.
In addition, he uses no animal-based nutrients.
Under the National Organic Program, producers can use 37 different pesticides, bone meal, fish emulsions and manure-based composts while maintaining their organic certification.
Famgro’s crops are not certified organic, partly because portions of the program conflict with his philosophy and partly because of food safety concerns.
Take fish emulsions, for example.
“We have no idea if it’s old-growth fish that are brimming with mercury,” he said. “There are no standards of any kind of how those fish are acquired or rendered into fish emulsions.”
Using animal-based products also introduces a second life form into the plant production system, complicating food safety, Fambro said.
In addition, using a vegan-based production system allows the company to market to consumers who for personal or religious reasons oppose killing animals.
As with every crop grown, each step along the way is entered into the computer and tied to a batch number. Not only does this provide for traceability, but it also allows the operation to improve the growing process, Fambro said.
If a propagator, for example, isn’t doing his or her job and yields suffer, the cause can be traced back.
Having all of the data at the touch of a computer also allows the company to schedule production just in time to meet customers’ orders.
Famgro sells to individual local retailers, Whole Foods in Southern California and foodservice as well as through wholesaler LA & SF Specialty, Los Angeles.