Growing Up

Under the glow of LED light arrays, Plenty’s crops grow on 20-foot-tall towers inside a climate-controlled facility in South San Francisco.
Under the glow of LED light arrays, Plenty’s crops grow on 20-foot-tall towers inside a climate-controlled facility in South San Francisco.
It’s like no farm you’ve ever seen: plants growing up vertical towers in a building the size of a Walmart. Is Plenty the future of produce?

Most farmers are up before the crack of dawn. But the sun is already shining in the woodsy Bay Area enclave of Woodside when Matt Barnard gets up — a pretty good gig for a farmer. Of course, Barnard’s 50,000 square feet of leafy vegetables and herbs is no ordinary farm.

Barnard isn’t exactly working the land either, at least not in the traditional sense. His farm occupies a warehouse in South San Francisco about the size of a Walmart. Inside the enormous building, leafy green vegetables grow on towers 12 to 15 feet tall.

Perhaps even stranger than the sight of thousands of plants growing on vertical racks is the complete absence of natural sunlight. Forget photosynthesis as you learned it in elementary school. You can also forget about seasons and the weather issues that go with them, like droughts and deep freezes. These plants are nurtured by LED lighting, while tens of thousands of sensors and cameras monitor humidity, temperature levels and growing phases. There are almost no bugs, so there is no need for pesticides.

Plenty co-founder Matt BarnardPLENTY
Plenty co-founder Matt Barnard

Think of this as industrial farming 2.0. Barnard is CEO and co-founder of Plenty, a tech-driven agricultural startup whose ambitious aim is to solve the world’s food shortage. It’s a big goal that’s attracted big money: more than $200 million in venture capital funding and A-list investors,including Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and Alphabet board member Eric Schmidt.

Barnard’s pitch goes like this: The global supply of fruits and vegetables already falls 22 percent short of what the world needs. Earth’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, global warming is drying out portions of today’s fertile land and the world water crisis is increasingly serious. More people than ever are living in cities, meaning produce must typically travel a long way to grocery shelves.More than half of all produce grown in the U.S. is thrown away because it rotted on the way to market.

Barnard and his co-founder, Nate Storey, an expert in vertical farming technology, are betting that they have an answer. Plenty’s indoor farm consumes just 1 percent of the water used in conventional farming and can grow as much as 350 times more produce. To grow a single head of lettuce, which requires 15 gallons of water in a conventional field, Plenty’s farm needs just one-fifth of a gallon.

Plenty claims it can slash shipping times because it is locating its vertical farms close to urban centers — in addition to the South San Francisco building, a facility twice as large near Seattle is expected to start shipping produce this spring, and others are planned around the country for later this year. The goal is that consumers will be able to buy kale in the afternoon that was picked just that morning.

The debate over GMOs also doesn’t apply, Barnard says, because rather than modifying the food in order to increase the yield, his facility modifies the growing environment. Plenty even believes it will be able to fine-tune the nutrient value of its vegetables — as well as the way they taste.

Barnard, who grew up on an apple and cherry farm in Wisconsin, might seem a natural next-generation farmer. But that’s not the case. “I didn’t enjoy growing up in a world where we had no control over our livelihood,” Barnard says. “When I left the farm, I intended to never go into agriculture.” He earned degrees in economics and music at Northwestern University (he played the trombone), then moved to California to work in the telecom industry. Inspired by reading about the world’s water crisis and with an innate interest in fixing struggling systems, Barnard joined a private-equity firm and began investing in water technology. He and Storey founded Plenty in 2013.

Plenty co-founder Nate StoreyPLENTY
Plenty co-founder Nate Storey

While Plenty may sound like a perfect solution to one of Earth’s great dilemmas, setting up a new food supply chain from scratch is a daunting task, and the initial costs are exorbitant, according to Henry Gordon-Smith, a vertical farming consultant based in Brooklyn. “It’s an extremely difficult challenge,” he said. “And they take an extremely long time for payback.”

Investors in Silicon Valley, just a few miles down the road from Plenty’s indoor farm, are betting on Barnard’s company to succeed. To date, there hasn’t been an investment in vertical farming anywhere near this scale.

But there are several other vertical farming startups, chief among them AeroFarms, in Newark, N.J. A vertical farm in Alaska is helping bring fresh vegetables to a region where very little grows outdoors for most of the year. In Japan, an indoor farm tended by robots is set to deliver 10 million heads of lettuce next year.

With its deep pockets and proximity to Silicon Valley expertise, Plenty may have just the edge it needs. In addition to Bezos and Schmidt, Plenty’s investors include Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son. And if you take into account Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Markets, Bezos’ involvement in Plenty is all the more intriguing.

Meanwhile, Barnard is focusing on getting Plenty’s first crop to Bay Area markets this spring. For a farm boy who never wanted to become a farmer, he’s doing it his own way.

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