The inefficiencies across the supply chain from farm to truck to packer to supermarket and foodservice has fueled the burgeoning indoor farming industry
In 2017 these industries accounted for $106.6 billion and expected to reach $171.12 billion by 2026, according to the Worldwide Indoor Farming Market Report.
Austin Webb, CEO and co-founder of Fifth Season, an indoor farming company based just outside of Pittsburg that combines vertical farming with proprietary robotics and artificial intelligence wants to disrupt the nation’s produce marketplace and create an entirely new category of hyper-local fresh produce. He might do exactly that. To date, Fifth Season has raised more than $35 million and is supplying produce to Whole Foods and Giant Eagle supermarket chains from their 25,000-sq.-ft. grow room that has twice the growing capacity of traditional vertical farms. He estimates they will grow in this soilless hydroponic facility more than 500,000 lbs. of produce in its first full year of operation. Fifth Season’s produce is grown using up to 95 percent less water and 97 percent less land than conventional farming. Fifth Season is delivering its produce within hours of packaging, without pesticides and has an average shelf life of weeks, instead of the typical few days that produce lasts when it is shipped from California to the Midwest or East.
Webb told me in a Zoom interview how they have achieved this higher output through the use of technology to develop a system where they can affordably and consistently create what he calls “a whole new level of the fresh experience.” Currently Fifth Season grows spinach, arugula, cilantro, basil, parsley and other specialty blends. Sensors throughout the growing area monitor every condition — humidity, pH, light, nutrient mix — and adjust to each individual plant’s needs.
Fifth Season, is more of a tech start up than anything. It's a mind think that should wake up the industry. They have replaced human interaction inside of their growing rooms with robotics which is how they have reduced the amount of space taken up by the aisles in the growing area and reduced a lot of human labor from start to finish. These robots are able to do automated storage and retrieval of their products, and then in the processing and packaging areas, they are also integrated with automation from end to end – from seeding and controlling growing inputs to automated harvesting to the packaging it all sits within the software skin and integrated platform that they have built which contains 40 different bots.
Using technology to increase efficiency is just one part of it. The company is using AI to both improve flavors and make produce more affordable.
Retailers, Webb says, have embraced the concept. “When we have conversations with retailers, they're really excited around how this could come in and really redefine the supply chain and start to actually provide access to that fresh food that folks want.”