The production and distribution of the food we eat each day presents some of the world’s biggest supply chain challenges. Some foods travel thousands of miles to market. Think of the banana you may have eaten today that came from Central or South America.
Many foods need to be kept refrigerated or frozen throughout their lengthy journeys, making the trips extraordinarily costly. The process is wasteful as well. Because many fresh fruits and vegetables have short shelf lives, a significant portion will spoil before ever reaching the consumer.
As our world continues to urbanize, it will be increasingly difficult to feed growing populations far from the farms that produce our food. That’s where vertical farming comes in. Growing plants in warehouses located close to urban areas can provide fresher food that requires fewer resources, isn’t dependent on climate or weather, and minimizes travel distance, a proposition that could eventually make it much easier to feed growing populations.
That’s the vision of Sam and John Bertram, two brothers from Melbourne, Australia, who originally came to California on college tennis scholarships. After completing their engineering studies, they looked for a venture where they could direct their talents. They found it in vertical farming. In 2017, the Bertram brothers co-founded OnePointOne, a Silicon Valley firm that has developed an automated indoor farming technology “stack,” enabled by proprietary robotics, cultivation, and AI (artificial intelligence) innovations. Sam serves as chief executive officer and John is chief technology officer.
Last year, the company opened its first commercial farm in a warehouse near San Jose. The farm, which operates under the company’s Willo direct-to-consumer brand, offers a subscription-based service whereby members are provided with a portion of the farm to grow herbs and vegetables of their choice and then have them delivered to their homes—what Willo calls “personalized farming.” DC Velocity Editorial Director David Maloney recently spoke with Sam about his operation and the supply chain implications of vertical farming.
Q: Can you describe the concept behind a vertical farm and what your farm looks like?
A: Absolutely. Vertical farming just means that you’re using the “third dimension”—you are no longer growing in just two dimensions [like a traditional outdoor farm]. We use a cultivation technique called “vertical plane aeroponics.” So, the plants actually grow out of thin air. There is no soil. Instead, a hydroponic nutrient-infused mix is misted onto the roots that serves all of the functions of soil. Rather than using sunlight, LED lights provide the plant with energy for photosynthesis. When you look at any of the dozens of walls—or “columns,” as we call them—within our facility, you see plants growing out of a two-story, double-sided wall.
So, you can imagine how a warehouse in an urban location could be used as a vertical farm. Usually, warehouses have relatively high ceilings, so that allows you to increase your density and plant production.
Q: How did you and your brother become interested in vertical farming?
A: In 2016, my brother and I came across a statistic that said that 1.1 billion people began this millennium malnourished. That’s an astronomically depressing figure when you think about the sheer number of people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Our desire to make an impact led us to found our first company, OnePointOne.
We looked at traditional farming and greenhouse farming, both of which are very mature industries, with tens of billions of dollars’ worth of R&D going into them each year. But in both categories, operations are fundamentally limited by the fact that the growers can’t control the plants’ environment. That was something that vertical farming solved. With vertical farming, you gain complete control of the plant’s entire experience—and, by extension, its taste, texture, shelf life, nutrient composition, appearance, and aroma. It is very powerful, and that is very pertinent to this conversation as it applies to the supply chain.
Q: And I’d guess the problems with more traditional farming aren’t going away, right?
A: No. They are only going to become worse. You have to think about a growing population, a decrease in arable land, and a massive increase in consumption of fresh water. Finding farm labor is also difficult. The average age of laborers in Salinas and Monterey, California, is between 52 and 56, and there’s no generation of farm workers coming up behind them nor any automation technology ready to fill the gap.
Q: What are some of the supply chain issues that vertical farming can address?
A: One would be energy consumption. Fresh food on average travels 2,000 miles to get to the end-consumer in the United States. Imagine the amount of energy that is required to move those plants and to keep them cold both in the truck and inside the retail store. It is astronomical. Most of the energy consumed in this model is actually in distribution and not production. Now, consider how much less energy would be required if the food were grown only 20 to 50 miles away.
But the main value proposition of vertical farms to the consumer is freshness. Leafy greens don’t last an hour if you leave them outside. They also experience significant nutrient loss when they travel long distances through the supply chain. Besides that, we can ensure that the plants in our facility never exceed their “chill points,” which greatly improves overall product quality and shelf life.
Q: What are some of the environmental benefits of vertical farming?
A: When you use aeroponics, the roots are getting exactly what they need all the time. We use zero pesticides, of course. We still apply nutrients, but obviously they’re in a far, far lower concentration than the fertilizer required on a farm. We use around 99% less water, with zero runoff and environmental contamination. That really matters when you consider the fact that 70% of fresh-water consumption around the world is for agriculture. We use, depending on the crop, around 250 times less land than a traditional farm does. That is really a function of the fact that we can grow year-round, grow plants twice as fast, and utilize the third dimension.
Q: What steps did you take to develop your farm?
A: The first thing we focused on was developing a technology that could produce food at a low-enough cost that it would make sense to deploy it around the world. We knew that labor was the number-one cost factor and that electrical efficiency was second. We knew we would have to develop our own farming technology and infrastructure to grow the plants, the software to operate the facility and automate many of the cultivation processes, and then the robotic equipment that manages the logistics of the farm: the inspection of the crops, the movement of different subsystems within the farm, and so forth.
We started the business three and a half years ago. We spent the first two and a half years developing the technology, and then in the first half of 2020, we built our first commercial farm. We call it Farm One, and it is located in a 6,000-square-foot warehouse in San Jose.
Q: Let’s talk about your business model. Willo’s members basically rent space within your farm on a subscription basis and decide what they want to have grown in that space?
A: That is exactly right. Basically, people will interact and control their farm shares through a mobile application. On a month-to-month basis, they can increase or decrease the size of their farm share, or “field,” by adding or subtracting beds, which are areas within the farm where specific crops are cultivated. The customers control what they want grown for them.
Q: What kinds of crops are grown in your farm?
A: We started with the leafy greens—the kales, the arugulas, the spinaches, the basils, the micro greens. They are productive plants and highly nutritious. We have also grown potatoes, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and cauliflower. We plan to continually introduce new categories of fruits, vegetables, and medicinal plants to our list of selections.
Q: How often do you make deliveries?
A: It depends on the subscription. It could be once a week or once every two weeks.
Q: What do the robots you developed do in the facility?
A: These robots handle the high-frequency, low-complexity tasks. That’s what robots are very, very good at. For example, our robots handle the planting of the seeds, the movement of the plants throughout the facility, and the visual inspection of the plants with high-resolution cameras. The next functions we will automate include the movement of lights around the facility, the cleaning of the infrastructure, the sampling of tissue, and the pollination of plants within the facility. So, eventually, we will have automated every single operation within the vertical farm through a single fleet of robots.
We are also automating the processes of harvesting and packaging, using off-the-shelf robots for both of these functions.
Q: How many robots do you have operating in the facility and how do they work?
A: Today, we have three robots that are operational inside of the facility, and the next facility will have something on the order of 11.
The vertical farm is two stories tall, and at the top of that vertical farm is what is called a heat island—it’s where all the heat rises up from the LED lights and from the plants as they generate heat. That all sits in about a four-foot area on top of the facility, and it is where the robots operate as well.
The robots travel around the facility on rails, and each carries a different “payload” that can be lowered to perform different functions, such as moving the plants, inspecting the plants, or moving the lights. We designed these robots so that their payloads can be dropped 40 feet or more, but we also built them in such a way that the distance could easily be extended. That is one of the best parts about our system—its ability to physically scale up, out, and side to side.
We have also developed our robotics system to be extremely modular, which gives us a lot of redundancy. If something goes wrong with one of these robots, it is not like a conveyor belt, where you have a single point of failure.
Q: How do you control all of this automated equipment?
A: We have an in-house software suite that monitors conditions to make sure the setpoints are perfect. The software manages all of the environmental input that the plant experiences, such as light, temperature, humidity, air flow, water flow rates, water pressures, droplet sizes, nutrient composition, PH levels, electrical conductivity … the list goes on and on.
Q: And you have plans to expand this technology to additional locations?
A: That is correct. We sold out the first farm in a matter of weeks. We will soon build a second facility, which will be located in Santa Clara, about eight minutes up the road. It will be a little bit over 10 times the size of our current facility and will offer significantly more in the way of production capacity. From there, we plan to expand to other cities.
Q: With your goal of alleviating world hunger, could your technology be deployed anywhere in the world?
A: That is the aim, but it won’t happen overnight. First of all, as with electric cars, this starts at a low-volume, high-price level, which is exactly where vertical farming must exist in the market today. As we continue to optimize operations within the farms themselves, production costs per pound will drop.
In our opinion, though, there are a number of other ventures where this technology could potentially be a significant disruptor. For instance, our technology allows us to analyze crops in ways that could lead to genetic breakthroughs with respect to feeding more of those 1.1 billion people who began this millennium malnourished, and help us grow plants for medicines and vaccines to keep those same people healthy. There is nothing in the world that would drive me harder as a human being than the idea of turning those two prospects into reality.