The Millis company and its parent firm in California have struck a $40 million joint venture with the catering operation of Emirates airline to build the largest “vertical farm” in the world in Dubai: rows of lettuce and other greens growing in hydroponic containers stacked 50 feet high.
FreshBox Farms, among the nation’s most efficient vertical farming operations, has been named a finalist in Fast Company’s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards. The awards honor businesses, policies, projects, and concepts that offer innovative solutions to the issues facing humanity. Freshbox Farms is among the finalists highlighted in the May issue of the print magazine.
FreshBox Farms, of Millis has named Randy Frederick its national accounts director. His goal will be to build profitable business partnerships with key customers in the grocery, wholesale produce, food service and restaurant retail channels. Frederick most recently was vice president of national sales for Freight Farms…
SL: Our food is grown and served within what is known as a hyper-local radius (fewer than 100 miles). Food is considered local in the U.S. if it is produced (not necessarily grown, but perhaps processed), within 400 miles of the point of consumption. Our hyper-local growing allows for distribution, year-round, of produce for even the most inclement of climates. Our unit economics also allows us to be a low-cost provider of healthy greens, something most vertical farmers won’t be able to do.
This is an industry where the disruption can be enormous, but it can also be very slow and there are very good, entirely satisfactory substitutes in field-grown produce — particularly organic. My colleagues in the industry don’t necessarily want to hear that — they’d rather live the dream of how we’re building the coolest thing since the iPhone X. But the reality is that we still have to build profitable farms if we want this industry to last. Our margins are better (and hopefully will stay better) but costs and revenues still matter, and we still have to make that work, one leaf at a time.
FreshBox, near Boston, is proudly among the only commercial farms that are “gross margin positive” according to its CEO, Sonia Lo. Her farms are modular, built in 320-square-foot shipping containers, each with its own temperature, humidity, and airflow customized to the needs of a crop. Numerous containers can be networked together in a single warehouse, to benefit from the economies of scale of a larger installation, while maintaining the flexibility of smaller ones. “There’s a 20-degree difference between what romaine grows at and what basil grows at, so in a single space, you’re not optimized for any one plant. Containerization is our solution for that,” Says Lo. This approach allows crop yields per square foot as much as 2,000 times that of field farms, she says.
Inside an old ginger ale factory in Millis, Freshbox Farms has 8-by-40 foot containers lined up, each connected to a water purification and air filtration system. Inside every container is a hydroponic farm growing an acre’s worth of leafy greens. But, before we can even enter one, the company’s senior vice-president of plant science and product development, Deane Falcone, and I suit up in lab coats and hair nets so we don’t bring in insects that can damage the plants.