CHICAGO – According to the USDA, the average head of lettuce travels 1,500 miles from harvest to plate. That transport leaves a heavy carbon footprint as flavors in the produce also begin to degrade. While many have looked to vertical farming as an Eco-friendly alternative, high costs have been a challenge.
But inside a warehouse on Chicago’s south side, one entrepreneur hopes to unlock the secret to the future of farming.
For the last three years Jake Counne, the founder and CEO of Backyard Fresh Farms, has been pilot testing vertical farming using the principles of manufacturing.
“Being able to have the crop come to the farmer instead of the farmer going to the crop,” said Counne. “That translated into huge efficiencies because we can start treating this like a manufacturing process instead of a farming process.”
It’s a high-tech approach – implementing artificial intelligence, cameras and robotics that help to yield leafy, organic greens of high quality, while reducing waste and the time it takes to harvest.
Some have called it Old McDonald meets Henry Ford. Large pallets of vegetables are run down conveyor belts under LED lights.
“The system will be cuing up trays to the harvester based on where the plants are in their life-cycle,” explains Counne.
It’s the automation and assembly line he says that makes this vertical farming model unique. Artificial intelligence algorithms and cameras monitor the growth of the crops.
Lead research and development scientist Jonathan Weekley explains how the cameras work.
“They’re capturing live images, they’re doing live image analysis,” he said. “They’re also collecting energy use data so we can monitor how much energy our lights are using.”
“So, what essentially happens is the plant itself is becoming the sensor that controls its own environment,” Counne added.
Another factor that makes the process different is scaleability. Right now, Backyard Fresh Farms can grow 100 different varieties of vegetables with an eye on expansion.
“There’s really no end to type of varieties we can grow and specifically in the leafy greens,” said Counne. “I mean flavors that explode in your mouth.”
And it’s becoming big business.
The global vertical farming market valued at $2.2 billion last year is projected to grow to nearly $13 billion by 2026.
Daniel Huebschmann, Corporate Executive Chef at Gibson’s Restaurant Group, says the quality of Backyard’s produce is of an extremely high quality.
“We’ve talked about freshness, but the flavors are intense,” he says. “It’s just delivering an unbelievably sweet, tender product.”
Counne says he has nine patents pending for the hardware and software system he and his team have developed in the 2,000 square foot space. But, he says the ultimate goal is to have the product make its way to grocery shelves nationwide.
“The vision is really to build 100 square foot facilities near the major population centers to be able to provide amazing, delicious greens that were grown sustainably,” he said.
If he succeeds where others have failed, his high-tech plan could get him a slice of the $63 billion U.S. produce market. At the same time, he hopes to bring sustainable, fresh vegetables to a table near you.