On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Matt Barnard, the CEO of the indoor farming company Plenty, stood at the entrance of a Whole Foods in midtown Manhattan, surveying a mountain of berries.
Inbound shoppers wove around the display — a ziggurat of strawberry cartons, flanked by smaller piles of blueberries, raspberries, and cherries — stopping every so often to peel a container off the stack. In early summer, the strawberries sold here are local, sourced from farms in New York and New Jersey. But for most of the year, they come from California, where 90% of the U.S. strawberry crop is grown. Barnard, who is 46, tall, and slim, with close-cropped grey hair and a crooked smile, picked up a clamshell of strawberries and turned it over in his hand, frowning.
The berries looked pretty good to me — scarlet red and the size of a toddler’s fist — but Barnard’s examination exposed telltale signs of mediocrity. Their green crowns had wilted slightly, and paleness near the stem signaled that the berries had been picked only three-quarters ripe. That improves their durability, but misses out on the burst of sugar and flavor compounds that develop at the end of a growing cycle. (Unlike bananas, or avocados, strawberries don’t continue to ripen once harvested.)
“For a grower to produce a strawberry 2,000 miles away from where it’s consumed, it’s an avalanche of trade-offs,” Barnard explained. Peering into the plastic container, he guessed the berries, organically grown and priced at $5.99 per quart, would be firmer, tarter, and thinner in flavor than a strawberry rightly should. Here was a product ripe for disruption, and his was just the company to do it.
Plenty is one of the biggest names in the nascent vertical agriculture sector. Greenhouses have been around for centuries, but an operation like Plenty’s moves the farm fully indoors, into warehouse-sized spaces where the plants grow floor to ceiling, hydroponically, under LED lights. With over $200 million in venture capital funding from the likes of Softbank, Google’s Eric Schmidt, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the company runs a commercial indoor farm outside San Francisco, where it grows leafy greens like kale, tatsoi, and mizuna.