“If it’s something you can’t build with just materials from Home Depot, you don’t understand the problem enough,” Michael Ross told Technical.ly. “Then, once that seems to make an impact, of course, we get CAD involved, we’ve got a machine shop on site and we’ll get it done properly. But it’s about, do you really understand what the thing is that you’re trying to fix or optimize?”
Ross and his brother are the cocreators of Beanstalk, a Herndon, Virginia vertical farm that they created in 2017 to produce more healthy food options. Beanstalk is a direct-to-consumer model that delivers salads and produce to customers’ doors. The Beanstalk facility is entirely indoors and, up until the packing stage, is primarily automated with software for processes like seeding, harvesting and moving products around the facility.
They’re only one part of Virginia’s farming scene, which is increasingly turning to tech to lower costs, improve consistency and reduce environmental impact. One of the human race’s closest ties to nature, growing produce and plants ourselves, experiences a bit of a facelift when met with software, AI and hydroponic technology — growing plants entirely in water.
Another Virginia farm, Greenswell Growers, has actually taken this to another extreme — save for restaurant distributors, from seed to the refrigerator, Greenswell produce never actually touches human hands. And that goes back to a changing consumer need, cofounder Chuck Metzgar said: Millenials specifically care a lot more about what goes on their plate.
“The millennial generation said: ‘It matters to me what I eat, what is put on the food, how healthy it is, who touches it in and why,'” Metzgar said.
Still, Metzgar said that on the Goochland farm, the “plant growing part” comes first and the technology comes second. That’s why he sticks to a greenhouse model instead of vertical farming, with the help of automation to keep costs down.
“A seed and a plant and Mother Nature have been working together for years and years and years, and they know what they’re doing together,” Metzgar said.
Richmond’s Babylon Microfarms started as a research project from CEO Alexander Olesen and CTO Graham Smith looking at the potential for hydroponic farms in refugee camps. Hydroponics allows for quicker growth while using less water, Olesen said, and the company developed a small system for consumers to use in their homes – or, for businesses, in dining rooms and cafeterias. The startup was founded in 2017 and just completed an $8 million raise to expand its reach.
“They’re meant to be very visually captivating vertical farming systems that can be placed really anywhere from your kitchen, to your lobby, to wherever makes sense in the built environment,” Olesen said.
Babylon created what it calls a “growth recipe,” which lets users scan a QR code of what they want to grow and add it to a “plant pack,” described by Smith as a Keurig pot with seeds. That tells the farm what crop is going in so it knows how to regulate the environment and control pH, nutrient content and ventilation. The application runs on Python and sends data to a database through Django.
With Babylon’s app, users get notifications on when to plant, harvest, clean the system and more. The remote management system allows the team to look over the shoulder of customers so they can create an alert if something is amiss.
Adding this tech component, Olesen said, helps a lot of folks like chefs and consumers who want to grow produce but don’t want to or cannot learn all the necessary science.
“This isn’t their primary line of business and so they need extra hand-holding so the software in combination with the subscription, and the support infrastructure we’ve offered really makes it an effortless experience,” Olesen said.
What comes next?
With the addition of tech, ideas around agriculture have shifted. It’s not limited to a large Midwestern or California farm with acres and acres of produce that requires huge amounts of manual labor. Instead, Virginia’s growers can prioritize local: these growers work with distributors, restaurants and consumers that can be as close as 10 miles away (or, in the case of Babylon, the growth-to-plate commute can be just a few steps). All are working on reducing the amount of space needed to provide food.
“The narrative in the indoor farming industry, the vertical farming industry, is bigger is better,” Olesen said. “That is changing without a doubt.”
The growers also noted that prioritizing local, tech-led produce can lower costs, increase nutrient levels in fruits and levels and reduce the emissions needed in delivery. As a whole, Ross thinks that we’re due for a rethink in how people buy food and how it’s transported, and he thinks indoor growing is part of the cutting edge as agricultural tech continues to develop.
“The tech is proven, it’ll accelerate, I have full confidence that it will accelerate,” Ross said, adding: “From the physics of it, it’s absolutely possible and so I know it will happen.”
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