South San Francisco — At a nondescript gray building about 10 miles south of the Mission District, a team of a couple hundred people is trying to make vegetables taste better.
This is the headquarters for Plenty, a company in the business of vertical agriculture — using hydroponics (growing plants without soil) to farm in an enclosed space. The practice is a long-in-development new frontier of farming that is starting to get to a place of technological efficiency that will allow it to scale commercially. In a space the size of a basketball court, the farm is growing kale, arugula, bok choy, beet leaves, fennel and mizuna.
At Plenty, the mission is to make plants that taste so good, you’ll want to eat them over everything else.
Chief executive and co-founder Matt Barnard, 47, claims that Plenty not only uses 1% to 5% of the water used to grow comparable crops on a traditional farm but also uses a fraction of the land — and he’s doing it all in a 100% renewable facility powered by a combination of wind and solar energy.
After launching the South San Francisco farm this summer, the company will announce Friday that it has inked a deal to open a second vertical farm, this time in Compton. It will take just a few months to get the 95,000-square-foot facility up and running, but the farm is not expected to bring produce to market until late 2020.
Once completed, Plenty will supply produce to dozens of Southern California restaurants, including Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza, as well as hundreds of grocery stores.
The farm will be the largest of its kind in the Greater Los Angeles area and one of what Plenty hopes is at least 500 farms around the world in densely populated urban areas with 1 million or more people.
“By doing that, we increase access and availability through high-quality produce, change behaviors and get people to eat fruits and vegetables in lieu of snack food,” Plenty spokeswoman Christina Ra said.
Besides restaurants and grocery stores, the company also hopes to make inroads in local schools. Plenty is in talks with Compton schools to create a partnership that will bring the farm’s produce and technology to kids in the area.
The company declined to say how much it will cost to build and operate the new facility, but Barnard said he plans to create dozens of jobs by hiring locally.
“Compton has rich agricultural roots and Plenty Farms is continuing that tradition,” Compton Mayor Aja Brown said in a statement.
In the center of the San Francisco warehouse, the Plenty farm is wrapped in a foil-like material that reaches from the concrete floor to the ceiling like an alien fortress. Giant dehumidifiers hum loudly on the outskirts of the rooms.
Once the farm is running at full capacity next year, Plenty claims it will be able to grow enough produce for more than 100 grocery stores. The growing capacity in Compton will be even greater.
Visiting the farm requires hair nets, beard nets, full jumpsuits, booties, gloves and special glasses; the vibe is less “American Gothic” and more like a movie about a world-ending virus.
The crown jewel of Plenty is the growing room, where plush greens sprout from tall vertical towers that blend into one another like rows of continuous living walls. Opposite the plants are glowing strips of LED lights. Once the plants spend a few days in the growing room, the towers move along a track out into a processing room. A robotic arm turns the towers on their side, slices off the produce, then sends the greens to a room for packaging.
People manage and sterilize the machines, but no human hands actually touch the produce at any point in the farming process.
“There’s no need to wash our product,” Barnard said. “You know those bags of lettuce that say triple washed? They are washed in bleach. We don’t think people should have to eat pesticides or bleach.”
Barnard, who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, sees vertical agriculture as a way to address obesity, drought and food shortage problems — along with eliminating the need for your salad spinner. According to a 2018 USDA report, the Earth will need almost 70% more food, 30% more water and more than 50% more energy production by 2050.
In a conference room at the farm, Barnard and Olivia Nahoum, who is the senior product development and sensory manager for the company, have set out a tasting of sorts. Using tweezers, Nahoum places borage flower, pea herb, wasabi flower, wasabi leaves and purslane on a plate and instructs me to try them.
Tasting the pea herbs, fairy-sized green leaves attached to tinier stalks, is like biting into a raw snap pea with a freshness and earthiness likely better than the real thing. Purslane tastes of an ice-cold glass of sweet and sour lemonade on a hot summer’s day. Borage flowers, gorgeous sky-blue blooms with white centers, evoke a mojito, with pure sugar and notes of fresh cucumber. The wasabi flowers look innocent enough but the delicate petals pack a peppery punch. The wasabi arugula leaf is the strongest of the bunch, offering up a nose-tingling slap of wasabi.
But the bulk of what Plenty grows is not fancy herbs. I also sampled baby kale that was soft and sweet, an unbelievably peppery arugula and a mixture of green and purple bok choy that made me think of baked potatoes.
Those greens have impressed Los Angeles chef Nancy Silverton, who is on the board of the company as a culinary advisor and collaborator.
“I was so blown away,” Silverton said of her visit to the farm. “The idea that this not only can be done, but I was so surprised by how good everything tasted.”
Chef Dominique Crenn, who is also on the Plenty board, uses a purple butterfly herb that Plenty grows to add a bit of tartness to her black cod dish at her San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn.
In order to tweak flavor profiles, scientists adjust what Barnard refers to as the light recipe of a plant. When you’re outside, everything is up to Mother Nature; Barnard said the climate, soil and overall growing environment “algorithm” determine a plant’s flavor. Inside, he and his team are adjusting the lights, air temperature and humidity to coax the maximum amount of flavor from the produce.
“For our kale, we can take the flavor spectrum and move it from bitter to sweet so that it’s more balanced and easier to eat healthy food,” Barnard said. “Now that we have brought the farm inside, we can control the things that control flavor and change the recipe in order to make plants that people like.”
Plenty has a plant and flavor science team in Wyoming that tests seeds and varieties to figure out which have the most flavor potential. In the last year, the facility tested 700 kinds of produce. Although most of what Plenty produces are leafy greens, Barnard said they are working on strawberries as well.
It may sound like something out of “Blade Runner,” but Chris Dardick, lead scientist and plant molecular biologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, says this type of flavor manipulation is feasible.
“Scientifically, I don’t know how much data or evidence there is yet on that, but from our own experience, fruit crops that develop sugars and flavors are influenced by environmental conditions like the amount of sunlight,” Dardick said. “Those properties can be manipulated if you have control over lighting conditions and temperature.”
He is doing his own work with vertical farming and sees immense potential.
“One of the ways we [USDA Agricultural Research Service] got interested in vertical agriculture was the idea being we could take an orchard and bring it indoors,” Dardick said. “We work on fruit crops, particularly temperate trees like peaches, plums, apples and pears.”
Most of those fruit are challenging to farm indoors because of their size, shape and need for dormancy. The research Dardick is doing may make it possible to grow these fruit year-round, without the need to wait between planting a seed and the fruit flowering.
Plenty is not the only company to attempt vertical agriculture. There’s Bowery Farming and Farm One in New York, Buckeye Fresh in Ohio and Canadian Grocer in New Jersey. NASA started testing crop systems with shelves of hydroponic systems at the Kennedy Space Center in the late 1980s. The scientists grew wheat, soy beans, potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes and a couple of attempts at rice in a controlled chamber as a way to test a volume-efficient approach to farming in space.
Raymond M. Wheeler, who was on the team that tested the crop system in the ’80s, said they grew the plants under high-pressure sodium lamps similar to the orange-colored street lights you see on many city blocks. The lights, he said, were far from efficient, so Wheeler was encouraged by Plenty’s LED light system, the company’s focus on flavor and what that could mean for growing plants in space.
“If someone can come up with a very flavorful, very nutritious leafy green or a range of types, that would be perfect,” Wheeler said. “You have to get people to eat on space missions, so any way you could kind of help that out by enhancing flavor, the texture, the colors, all these things and the nutrients, are all a good thing.”
Although the benefits of vertical farming are generally touted as positive, some critics point out that the energy it takes to fuel a hydroponic facility can be excessive. According to Paul Zankowski, a senior advisor at the USDA, it all depends on a farm’s location.
“It all depends on where it is grown and the energy factors of that city,” he said.
Plenty is still working out what will be grown at the Compton farm and where it will be available. The company is currently selling salad boxes of greens for $4.99 at small retailers in the Bay Area like Good Eggs and Bi-Rite, and some of the produce is available at restaurants such as San Francisco robot burger joint Creator.
“We’re looking to compete with the whole middle section of the grocery store — all that dead stuff with highly processed sugars and lots of calories,” Barnard said. “We want to compete straight up on flavor.”
11:24 AM, Oct. 25, 2019: This story was updated with new information regarding the company’s expansion goals.