Softbank and Bezos backed vertical farm startup has global expansion plans

Plenty is a startup that has big vertical farming expansion plans $226 million in total venture funding. They plan to build a 100,000 square foot (2.3 acres) vertical-farming warehouse this year in Washington state outside of Seattle. That farm is expected to produce 4.5 million pounds of greens annually.

Plenty grows plants on 20-foot high towers with vertical irrigation channels and facing LED lights.

In June 2017, California-based vertical farming company Plenty, previously See Jane Farm, acquired Bright Agrotech in an effort to reach “field-scale.”

Bright Agrotech is an indoor ag hardware company that’s focused on building indoor growing systems for small farmers all over the world, in contrast to Plenty, which is aiming to become a large-scale indoor farming business and currently has a 52,000 sq. ft farm in South San Francisco.

Plenty claims to use 1 percent of the water and land of a conventional farm with no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Like other large soilless, hi-tech farms growing today, Plenty says it uses custom sensors feeding data-enabled systems resulting in finely-tuned environmental controls to produce greens with superior flavor.

Plenty claims to get 350 times the crop yield per year over an outdoor field farm.

With the backing of SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, Plenty has the capital and connections build massive indoor farms on the outskirts of every major city on Earth, some 500 in all. In that world, food could go from farm to table in hours rather than days or weeks.

Bezos Expeditions, the Amazon CEO’s personal venture fund, has also invested. So Plenty could supply WholeFoods.

Early leaders in vertical farming (PodPonics in Atlanta, FarmedHere in Chicago, and Local Garden in Vancouver) have shut down. They had a mix of design issues and high hardware costs. Gotham Greens and AeroFarms have not been as successful with fundraising.

Researchers have documented a steady decline in the amount of calcium, iron, phosphorus, protein, and vitamins in today’s produce over previous generations, thanks to the ways in which modern agricultural methods have stripped nutrients out of the soil.

A landmark study on the topic by Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. Davis and his colleagues chalk up this declining nutritional content to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition.

They are finding about 14-30% drop in various nutrients.

24 thoughts on “Softbank and Bezos backed vertical farm startup has global expansion plans”

  1. You beat me to it, with the observation that “so Plenty could supply WholeFoods.” Amazon baught Whole Foods, Besos funds So Plenty, and at some point if So Plenty does well enough then Amazon buys So Plenty. Maybe we would see So Plenty vertical farms on top of Whole Foods markets to cut out shipping expenses.

    On the topic of declining food nutrition, one theory I read states the increasing atmospheric CO2 is increasing plant growth rates, but because they grow faster they have less time to absorb nutrients and instead generate more sugars. A vertical farm, or even regular green houses could be rigged to have lower CO2 levels than that of atmospheric levels, which should slow growth but increase nutritional content.

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    • I’d be more inclined to blame plant breeding for faster, cheaper growth. It’s why modern tomato varieties taste so bad, after all. (I’ve got a cousin who played a part in engineering those “turn red without actually ripening” tomatoes; He still feels a bit guilty about it.)

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      • I read about something like that involving the green shoulders of tomatoes and how they were breed out to make pretty tomatoes, but it turns out green shoulders indicate greater flavor, which is why heirloom varieties have the best taste.

        I don’t think any one factor can be blamed for everything going on, not when there are so many different things being done at once to pretty much everything.

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  2. You gotta have long arms to pick fruit 20′ off the ground. 🙂
    While not perfectly organically certified (USDA ok, tho), the use of more toxic megachemicals would be lessened, which is good. Various minerals could be introduced to increase the nutrition value. Supplementing our food needs would be good. More greens could be in our diets, especially here way up north vs. you folks in warmer climes like NY and OR, and that might bring down the prices a lot. Using LEDs where the quality of daylight is meager and the quality is poor may possibly be wasteful, but it works.
    Of course, there are problems and inelegancies. Of course, it is not a universal solution. But wouldn’t it be good for people with lesser incomes around the world to have more affordable veggies? And more food for better nutrition? And of course, this is an industry that is not very old. Think of this as the IBM-PC of the 1980’s. 30 years later, personal computers are in your pocket (phone), in your car, and all sorts of places. IKEA, the USG, and others are all working on this, too. A great deal will likely happen in the next generation.
    While I don’t agree with his “1% politics,” Mr. Bezos is working to make a lasting, positive impact on the world. Would that more people would look to do projects like this, to better peoples’ lives. They will likely first come to your local JeffMart (Whole Foods). But I hope they can scale down for us folks in northern villages of 400 or so, too.

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  3. OK 4.5 million pounds in 2.3 acres sounds like a lot, but let’s crunch the number.

    According to USDA statistics, the average America consumes almost a ton of food each year (1,996 lbs), broken down and follows:

    https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2011/12/31/144478009/the-average-american-ate-literally-a-ton-this-year

    dairy 630
    meat 185
    sweeteners 141
    fats/oils 85
    grains 197
    misc. 70
    fruit 273
    vegetables 415
    total 1,996

    Only the last two categories, fruits and vegetables, a total of 688 lbs, can be grown in a vertical farm. Grains have too high of a caloric content to be grown under LEDs (though some VFs are experimenting with certain strains of dwarf rice). Meats, dairy and fats may be supply by labs but let’s focus on VFs.

    At a production rate of 4.5 million lbs, this proposed VF can feed about 6,500 people. The Seattle metropolitan area has a population of a little over 3.7 million people. So 566 such VF would be needed to supply the fruits and vegetables (only) consumed by the population of Seattle.

    A better comparison may be to New York whose metropolitan area has a population of 20.2 million. over 3,100 VFs would be needed to provide fruits and vegetable to New Yorkers. By comparison there are only 257 skyscrapers in New York.

    I have no doubt that VFs will continue to expand and fill the market for fresh food, but I don’t expect them to meet all of our food needs

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    • 3100 of those indoor farms is a total of about 7130 acres or a bit over 11 square miles. That’s an area about 3.4 miles square, a tiny little fraction of the farmed area around the NYC metro area. In fact it would easily be a rounding error distributed in the paved and built up area of NYC metro.

      I have other doubts about the effectiveness to replace all farming, but the area efficiency isn’t a problem. 3100 of those little buildings isn’t much to feed 20 million people. That’s also not comparable to skyscrapers since they’re only a standard industrial building ceiling. If you stacked them 20 high for a minimal high rise they’d only occupy about 350 acres.

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      • All very good point. Let’s crunch a few more numbers.

        With a population of 323 million, America would need almost 50,000 such VFs to provide all of its fruits and vegetables. Their total land area (assuming they aren’t stacked tall as you suggest) would be 113,600 acres or 177.5 square miles (about 13.5 miles square).

        Currently America uses 5.2 million acres to grow fruit and 4.5 million acres to grow vegetables. 9.7 million acres or 15,156 square miles. By switching to VFs, we can return almost 15,000 square mile back to nature – an area almost as big as Mass. and Conn.

        https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Farms_and_Farmland/Highlights_Farms_and_Farmland.pdf

        Going further, assuming we replace meat, dairy and fats with lab produced protein from stem cells we save another 7.2 million acres (11,250 square miles) used to grow corn for silage, and 415.3 million acres (almost 649,000 square miles) of permanent pasture. That is a total of 660,000 square mile that can be returned to natural habitat – about the size of Alaska.

        Farms are no more natural than skyscrapers. To heal the planet we need to return as much area to natural habitat as possible. That is the real benefit of VFs and lab grown meats.

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        • The 13.5 miles square is curiously close to the 10 miles square needed for Musk solar farm. Of course, lights instead of sunlight will take much more electricity.
          I totally agree that “farms” are not natural, and that we need to “heal the planet”. The more we see how to do things, shall I say, efficiently, like these indoor farms or even skyscrapers, the more clear it is that we can and should do them in Space, O’Neill’s basic counter intuitive and revolutionary observation.

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        • You know, you can’t just run these calculations based on the size of the vertical farm. They’re not remotely self-sufficient. How many power plants would be required to run them? Water reclamation? How far apart would you have to space them to avoid heat problems?

          And, yeah, actually farms ARE more natural than skyscrapers. For all that they’re not entirely natural.

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    • A pretty good analysis..but I think its naive to assume that they would build 3,100 of these on the most expensive real estate. suburbs with 1 hour shipping logistics and growing seasons in the dead of frozen winter will probably be the primary mode of operation for vertical farms where they will corner the market for “fresh” local greens and luxury food products.

      Staples will remain conventional agriculture for the forseeable future. it is simply the cheapest option by several orders of magnitude..but that said..vertical farms definately have a place at the table..especially to offset the short comings of harsh climate and limited growing seasons on Earth.

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  4. I would think you would want to minimize the use of LEDs as much as possible as the conversion from solar to electricity and then back to light represents a huge loss of energy. As compared to a green house which uses solar energy directly and can do vertical farming as well and that is assuming your using solar and not something dirtier. Not saying you couldn’t or shouldn’t ever use LED lighting, but I would think skylights would be your primary light source. My second though on this is maybe we should work to encourage small business owners to enter this industry instead of letting large corporations take it over as people will need something to do if A.I. takes too many jobs in the future.

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    • Actually, most (99%) of natural light isn’t what plants use! Most greenhouse energy loss is for HVAC(Heating and cooling). Plants in nature can be as low as 1/4% efficient annually. LED’s can be as efficient as 120 Lumens per watt or more which can be about 37% efficient and maybe more depending on wavelength. In many places plants get too much light for too little time per day and produce more with partial shade and extended time with LED light. Example, long dim daylight in Alaska and Germany/Russia can produce huge cabbage plants! Just a few concept facts for you to have fun with!

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      • you are right about plant solar utilization but the answer is more nuanced than that. t here are LED’s for industry out there that are well north of 200 lumens per watt and research pushing for 300-400. Also, plants only use certain spectra, so red, blue and even some green. They need each in varying amounts and times but the real kicker for LED is 2 reasons: 1) you can control the growing season, perpetual spring and keep out lighting cues for the things to go dormant etc when it is not optimal to do so. and 2) which is really the main reason, density. with solar radiation you are limited to how dense the plants can be as they all need light evenly to grow uniformly. with LED’s you can put them next to the plants and they don’t get burned (like with conventional grow lights) and you can pack everything as tight as it will go without worrying about shading because you can position the lighting on many sides at once. So your yields per acre go way up vs a solar only greenhouse.

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    • But on other worlds (Moon or Mars) you’ll likely have plenty of real estate available, so that you won’t need to go vertical. Unless you’re stuck in a cave or a lava tube.

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      • Which we will be for a time. Plus if you could ship a few modules for the colonist or miners etc to supplement what they are sent could be worth a lot more.

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        • The pressure need is “sort of” like surface area saving near city. You can’t just spread out flat in a vacuum. The lighting and other confinement techniques are highly relevant. CO2 needed, aeroponics?, disease control. Much to learn!

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      • No, you’d have plenty of real estate available, but it would be real estate that was lacking in little things like an atmosphere. Given the expense of providing that, you’d want your farms to be as compact as humanly possible. It’s Earth, where you have a suitable atmosphere, water falling out of the sky, and so forth, where you’ve got plenty of real estate available. Of Earth suitable real estate has to be manufactured.

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      • Real estate in other planets is whatever you make indoors with conditions (pressure, air, temperature) to allow you to use it and/or live.

        Greenhouses and habitats will have a high entry cost per square foot of floors and walls, resulting in compact spaces being the ones preferred.

        Ergo, dense and efficient crops like these will be much more interesting economically.

        Big spaces in space will only come in a post-scarcity economy for space building, allowing the construction of very big structures like sealed underground caverns, big pressurized volumes floating in space (basically big balloons in zero g) or O’Neill cylinders.

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