On the heels of a $40 million joint venture and a new office in Dubai, Sonia Lo is fighting for what she calls digital distributed agriculture, an emerging industry-wide infrastructure that works with her company’s indoor, vertical, hydroponic farms that grow heirloom lettuces, arugula, spinach and herbs.
This is not the same concept as digital agriculture that uses sensors to control the light, nutrients, water and humidity; this concept builds upon it. Here, the focus is on the distributed network, said Lo, CEO of Crop One Holdings, San Mateo, Calif. Crop One is a vertical farming holding company for two subsidiaries: FreshBox Farms, Millis, Mass., and a joint venture with Emirates Flight Catering, Dubai South, United Arab Emirates. The food produced in Massachusetts is sold under the FreshBox Farms brand.
Boston is the information technology hub, and the farms are the spokes. More U.S. farms are in the pipeline.
“We’re using the digital and network capabilities to assess what’s going on in the grow environment in each farm so we can optimize the growing environment, so that the farms are all run to a single standard,” Lo said. “But the growing, delivery and distribution of the end product — the food — all happens locally. Big packers centralize and manage that for all growers; we are vertically integrated, so we grow, pack and ship all by ourselves.”
True, vertical farming is a “fledgling industry” limited to mainly leafy greens and herbs, but that will change as technology improves and reduces in cost, she said.
Lo mentioned both the Haitz Law and Moore’s Law, both golden rules in technology, in which the cost of LED lighting and computers, respectively, exponentially drops each year while the light production and computer processing power, respectively, increases.
LED is the light source for most vertical farms.
“Over the next 10 years, LED lighting will double in efficiency and half in cost. What that means is 10 years from now, the cost of running a vertical farm could be cut in half, all other things being equal,” Lo said.
Leading agricultural colleges at universities nationwide, such as University of California Davis, Cornell University, Texas A&M and University of Arizona are studying Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) and the digital distributive network it enables.
The commercial scale of all kinds of CEA, vertically arranged or not, is increasing, according to competing indoor growers such as Plenty, BrightFarms, AeroFarms and Shenandoah Growers. Founded in 2010, the Japan Plant Factory Association spearheaded the movement based on lack of space, weather unpredictability and diminishing natural resources, Lo said.
Several related associations have formed in the last five years or so. In Nov. 2017, the Cornell CEA Advisory Council hosted more than 80 entrepreneurs and stakeholders from across the Northeast to discuss the future of the indoor farming industry, urban agriculture, supermarket trends and new technology.
On Feb. 14, Crop One announced the opening of its new regional office in Dubai. The new office is part of a long-term expansion strategy, according to a news release. Regional development manager Ming Zhu will relocate to the Dubai office.
The opening of Crop One’s Dubai office follows a $40 million joint venture with Emirates Flight Catering, announced June 2018. The farm is being built right next to Dubai’s airport, so greens can go from the farm directly onboard departing planes in fewer than 24 hours, plus be used at the airport’s 15 lounges.
The UAE imports an estimated 85% of its food needs, and less than five percent of the region’s land is considered arable, so the region is encouraging agricultural innovation that improves its self-sufficiency, such as supplying its own leafy greens, according to the release.
The 130,000-square-foot controlled environment facility will produce three tons, or 6,000 pounds, of herbicide- and pesticide-free leafy greens, harvested daily, using 99 percent less water than outdoor fields, according to the release. Construction begins in spring of 2019 and the first products are expected to be delivered in December 2019.
FreshBox Farms started its farming operation in Massachusetts in 2015 on one acre, or 43,000 square feet, including the cold storage and packing facilities. The actual growing space is 30,000 square feet. “In that space, we grow 400 acres worth of food, because we are growing vertically on top of one another,” she said.
The new aspect is the digital way the farms are distributed and managed with a single network.
“You’re breaking out the infrastructural burdens across multiples locations. We believe that this is going to be a multi-winner market. It certainly doesn’t mean field-based agriculture is going to go anywhere soon,” Lo said.