Shades of Greens

The company Plenty’s Tigris Farm in South San Francisco, where arugula, lettuce, baby kale and other greens are grown indoors with no pesticides.

Sam Mogannam owns Bi-Rite, a small chain of gourmet stores in San Francisco. Everything Bi-Rite sells is precious – almost too good to eat. Those products include greens from Plenty, tagline “Indoor. Nurtured. Controlled.”

“I like the products. I actually think they’re tasty,” Mogannam texted me when I asked him what he thought of the greens he sells from Plenty. “I’m not a huge fan of the amount of energy it takes to run the grow facility, and I have some concerns about the nutritional inputs used, but the water reduction, flavor and quality are great. I do see a greater need for tech in areas where access to fertile land to grow greens is not available.”

I live in California. Despite extreme temperatures, wildfires and periods of drought, access to fertile land isn’t our problem yet. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Golden State already supplies more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of our fruits and nuts. But that is actually why Plenty set up shop in the Bay Area; they wanted to compete head-to-head with the very best in produce. It ­didn’t hurt that the founders were a short drive from Silicon Valley, and its hot pool of tech talent.

There isn’t a single farmer on the staff of Plenty, but there are a few with “grower” in their title. Located in South San Francisco, just north of the airport, the workforce is 300 strong, and growing fast. This includes a lot of engineers – some from Tesla – and an inordinate number of recruiters. It’s not easy building a team that can grow a farm inside four walls. Plenty has raised almost twice as much money ($541 million) as AeroFarms, a vertical farm operator in New Jersey, but in fewer rounds. Jeff Bezos is an investor.

But Plenty’s humble offices don’t telegraph big money until you see the yellow robotic arms, sit in on a meeting full of expensive engineers, or listen to a staff discussion on the minutiae of leaf width and shape, stem length, and something they called “tooth packing,” which refers to how much food is left in your teeth. When I used the bathroom, I noticed it was stocked with dental floss and mouthwash.

I WASN’T SHOWN AROUND TAURUS, THE NAME OF PLENTY’S FIRST FARM, which still requires humans, and still produces most of the greens sold to date. Instead, their then head of engineering walked me through Tigris, which is almost fully automated. After taking off my jewelry and zipping myself up inside a blue fabric onesie, I slipped booties over my sneakers and donned a hairnet. Stepping inside, we were at one corner of the massive big-box building, which still had room to spread out. We started at the beginning, where seeds are automatically planted in a potting medium, which isn’t soil at all. Where a farmer might eagerly show off their healthy soil, at Plenty it’s proprietary. Things it probably included: scentless shreds of coconut husk, perlite and peat moss. Black potting trays made their way along a conveyor belt into an incubation room that is extra warm (the exact temperature of the room was a “trade secret”), and incredibly bright, to help speed the growth. It felt like Palm Springs in August.

Before I entered the incubation room, hidden under heavy black tarps, I was given giant black sunglasses to protect my eyes from the harsh white light. The lenses were so dark that it was difficult to see anything save for a dull pulsating glow. When I dipped the glasses down to sneak a peek, it seared my pupils like a solar eclipse.

After eight to 14 days in this inner sanctum, the plants are zipped out to a staging area where they are planted by a robotic arm into tall, skinny towers seven to 13 feet tall that hold 40 to 150 plants. Another yellow robotic arm places the finished towers onto an overhead zip line that moves the plants into their final stage, a grow room in which few people are allowed. Like a hospital room of newborns, there is a giant window that allows visitors like me to peer in at the new life.

If you do an internet search for “vertical farm,” you’ll see this iconic image. LED lights glow a pinky-purply hue, the towers and framework are pure white, and springing from tiny openings are rows and rows of flawless leafy greens.

It’s all completely different from the often highly romanticized image of the ideal farm, with chickens pecking and clucking, fluffy carrot tops sprouting from dark, loamy soil and bumblebees buzzing around pollinating flowers.

Liz Carlisle, author of Lentil Underground, and professor in agroecology and sustainable food systems at UC Santa Barbara, has a lot to say about the benefits of traditional farming – that is, outdoors, in the dirt. “It’s unimaginable to me that all of the benefits [of farming] could be replicated in a soil-less environment. We have yet to grasp the connection of microbial quality from the soil, and the plant to our [own] gut.”

Another proponent of soil is Dr. Daphne Miller, a clinical professor at UC San Francisco with an interest in ecology. Miller says plants don’t do as well in sterilized conditions when compared to a microbial rich soil. “We know it makes a difference to have an alive soil,” she says. “The biggest argument for growing plants in soil is that we have tons of soil to grow food, it’s just that we’re abusing it, and growing the wrong things.”

Long-term studies supporting these experts’ views haven’t been done, but there are countless doctors preaching for a diet of more organic produce, not less. Whether fruits and vegetables grown in a soil – and bug-free potting medium and given man-made fertilizers is the same as organic is up for debate.

One pro-organic proponent is Dr. Michael Greger, who illustrates his stance using salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, one of the most common painkillers in the world, and also an anti-inflammatory phytonutrient. In plants, the compound is used as a defense hormone, and the concentration is increased by the presence of hungry bugs.

“Pesticide-laden plants aren’t nibbled as much and, perhaps as a result, appear to produce less salicylic acid,” Greger wrote. This micro-nutrient, which is found at low levels in fruits and vegetables, helps our bodies keep inflammation in check.

British Journal of Nutrition study from 2014 looking at 343 peer-reviewed publications on organic food research found that organic plants produce more phenols and polyphenols that defend against pests, in turn nurturing higher concentrations of antioxidant compounds. As a result, the authors deemed that “organic fruits and vegetables contain about 20 – to 40-percent more antioxidants than conventional produce.”

System health, an all-encompassing view where everything we do and eat is considered helpful to the bottom line, appears to be little considered by vertical farm founders who seem more focused on removing humans from the equation, and shortening the miles traveled by fresh foods.

Shades of Greens

Robotic arms work alongside a human team at Plenty. About 300 people and counting work at the South San Francisco facility, including growing number of engineers.

THE NOTION THAT WE CAN REPLICATE ALL THAT THE HISTORY OF TRADITIONAL FARMING offers us inside a building is hard to fathom. We are becoming ever more distanced from where our food and water comes from, and the American investor culture, which sees every problem as capable of being solved with money, is helping widen this gap. The problems that regenerative agriculture solves – improved soil, planet health, animal welfare and nutrition – are also worthy of their attention. Maybe with their business smarts applied here, too, they can find the return on investment. Both solutions have merit and can be applied where they’re best suited.

But back to the organic debate: Another vote for the higher levels of polyphenols found in organic foods, which have antioxidant benefits inside our bodies, comes from Dr. Emeran Mayer. Mayer, a leading researcher and clinician focused on the brain-gut microbiome interaction, and author of The Gut-Immune Connection, believes that organic farming in soil promotes a greater biodiversity in life – plants, pests and microorganisms – that our own gut microbiome depends on.

In his book, Mayer’s thesis “is on the two reasons that plant-based food is healthier: one is fiber and one is polyphenols,” he says. “Vertical farm plants probably have the same amount of fiber, but I seriously doubt they have the same concentration of polyphenols.”

Not all plants are the same, and greens from vertical farms, which are more water-filled and wispy, don’t seem to pack in the fiber like the greens we get from the ground. What happens to our gut when we remove plants from soil?

Nate Storey, Plenty’s co­founder and chief science officer, echoes the importance of farms. “We’re not competing with the field, we’re filling the gap between supply and demand. The world has this way of turning our industry into an us versus them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fields are tapped out. Let’s build more fields without stressing the fields.”

What’s not tapped out are regenerative farms, where land is restored, nitrogen is replaced in the soil and plant life (and bugs) is abundant and diverse. Some research shows that going this route – highly productive farms that have a light environmental impact – can maintain yield requirements needed for a growing world. Integral to this approach is that farms must plant legumes, which are a boon to crop rotation, and perennial crops, which lends well to multi-cropping – growing multiple crops on the same piece of land. By using these methods, we can reduce the yield gap between industrial agriculture and organic farming. If, for example, we shifted farm subsidies, and directed funds to these better forms of land management, the gap could shrink even further.

Storey at Plenty could be right, too. Maybe his robot greens can complement ecological systems?

CHEF DAN BARBER’S 2014 BOOK The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food is a guide for what our food system could be. In one word: flavor.

We’re not yet living in Barber’s idealized vision, but the chef has it in his sights. He recently launched his own line of seeds, called Row7 Seed Company. Barber’s brother, David, runs Almanac Insights, a food and tech venture fund that is an investor in Emergy Foods, a Boulder-based mycelium company that makes Meati, a fungi-based protein.

Despite the connection, Barber the chef doesn’t see technology as our savior. “There’s a place for vertical farms in urban centers,” he says. And then in the same breath: “I’m not a pro-vertical-farm guy.” While Barber sees vertical farms as the perfect city antidote, I see them in small towns with empty main streets and limited fresh food access.

“Where are the dollars going? They’re going away from making healthy environments and nutrient-dense food and toward a reductive A to B agricultural system,” he says. “I wouldn’t have a problem if it didn’t purport to save the world from itself. We have a food system and agricultural economy that works in disastrous ways. But it doesn’t have to, and there are ways to prove that.”

I keep coming back to the vertical farm version of kale, possibly because it’s so different from the one I know best and eat almost daily: thick, toothsome, dark green lacinato kale. (I have to de-rib it.) My visit to Plenty started with a tasting of greens that could only be called delicate. I sat in a conference room called Amaranth (named after the tiny, round, gluten-free grain) with growers, product managers and quality assurance teams. We sat quietly munching away at trial batches of arugula. The team was hoping to determine if it was ready for the market. At the time, it was deemed too mild and too watery.

After several more grow cycles, it was ready. In August 2020, Plenty rolled out arugula and three other greens at about 40 stores around the San Francisco Bay Area, including as far south as the Safeway in Prunedale.

While the team fashions its assembly line for its plants – heavy equipment needs to be reengineered to work with relatively fragile leafy greens, for instance – it’s racking up bills. I don’t know what the burn rate is at Plenty – that’s how much cash is required to keep the lights on – but it’s significant. In addition to the two farms that are side by side in South San Francisco, the startup is breaking ground on a third location in Compton.

At 94,875 square feet, the refurbished building can include more grow rooms to support a wider range of greens. Using sales data showing what people bought, the team at Plenty found that Los Angelenos bought salad mixes at a faster clip than anywhere else in the country. “They really like their leafy greens there,” Plenty CEO Matt Barnard says.

Shades of Green

Investigative journalist Larissa Zimberoff was the keynote speaker at the 2021 Organic Produce Summit held in Monterey in September, where she spoke about her new book and how Silicon Valley is applying its ethos of disruption to the food industry.

AFTER SIGNING A NONDISCLOSURE AGREEMENT, I gained access to an hour-long meeting about Plenty’s Los Angeles location. (I later got the OK to write about it.) Seated around a long conference table were a dozen or so engineers. On the phone were many more. The topic was lighting design, and the group of mostly men discussed three design possibilities for the components, weighing in on the merits and downfalls of each one, including how much physical space the lights needed and whether they would be shipped fully finished on boats or be built onsite.

How lights are used – what spectrum, responsiveness, shifts of color, feedback loops between sensors and plants – is illustrative of the data being parsed by high-tech farms. Being privy to the buildout of this new facility allowed me to see another reason that things at Plenty (and all vertical farms) move slowly.

“We’ve built and torn down our farm over a dozen times in the last two years. Every day we get measurably better,” Storey says. To achieve their goals, the teams are constantly iterating – moving things one inch to the left and one inch to the right.

The more decisions they nail, the more productive and profitable Plenty will be. (According to Plenty.) This iterative practice is mainstream when working with code and other virtual environments, but eventually these costs are passed along to people that can afford it.

Plenty has much to keep secret, but they allowed me more access than most. This included time with Barnard, who snacked on a plastic clamshell of Plenty greens while we spoke. In between my questions, Barnard rolled up fistfuls of undressed spring mix into tight cigar-shaped wads and popped them into his mouth. He extolled how much progress they had made. “We cut 80 percent of the total energy consumption of the farm,” he says.

This was by making better LEDs and by cutting about 85 percent of the people-hours at the farm. These are “two of the most important metrics that drive the price of the food,” Barnard says. The third most costly: single-use plastic containers.

Despite having to nail all these minutiae around growing at high volume indoors, Barnard is certain Plenty will be profitable, with enough returns to please investors. I asked how many years it would take for his investors to earn back their money. “In a number of years that investors find attractive,” he says, vaguely. After I pressed him again he narrowed it down to “a lot less than 10.”

Ten is traditionally the number investors look for to recoup their investment, but these startups are already on track to take more than 10. AeroFarms’ 10-year anniversary was 2020, but the company says it won’t be profitable until after they open their planned location in Virginia.

WE WOULD ALL BE LUCKY IF VERTICAL FARMS COULD GROW LEAFY GREENS WITH ZERO CONTAMINATION. From 1973 to 2012, leafy greens were responsible for more than half of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with fresh produce in the U.S. This is from a study by the University of Arkansas on pathogens in plant tissue grown indoors.

I interviewed two of the researchers to learn more. Gina Misra, a molecular biologist who now works with Blue Marble Space on indoor farm education and outreach, told me how hard it was to gather information for her studies.

“I did a survey of U.S. microgreen [growers], and the reluctance of large suppliers to reply was difficult,” she says. “They’re afraid of competition and they don’t want to share anything. It’s a little paranoid,” Misra says. A lot of it is to shield businesses and their profits. “But how do we protect the people who provide food for us and keep them accountable at the same time?”

For now, we can only hope that leafy greens grown indoors are safe. In light of the pandemic, I would think that two things may happen.

Companies will have to share more about what they are doing to keep consumers safe, and food safety and handling could evolve from a federal regulation standpoint.

After safety, my big question was always: Why is the industry stagnating on lettuce? I eat salads daily, but does the world? Do they even want to?

There are several reasons indoor farms start with lettuce. It’s easy to grow and highly perishable. By shortening the supply chain – putting growing equipment on supermarket roofs or taking over empty buildings in urban centers – vertical farms can get us a better-tasting product.

Most produce begins its journey in a refrigerated truck coming from California, but that means when they arrive in Ohio, for example, they’re days old. Imagine if your greens only had to go downstairs or across the street?

If I believe what I’m told by these founders, they can control our food’s growth with LED lights and targeted nutrients, even upping the polyphenols found in plant tissue – boons to our health. However, they’re also reinventing form factor. Vertical farm plants are less fibrous and bitter. Many are sweeter. “If we want to change people’s diets, if we want people to embrace consuming more fruits and vegetables, then it has to be easy to eat,” Storey says.

Plenty’s end goal is snackability, but lettuce leaves replacing junk foods is a far-fetched Utopian vision. While I applaud the vision, it reads more like a health food writers’ vision of a sci-fi world that will never exist.

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