Vertical farming company Eco Convergence Group announced this morning it has officially rebranded as Kalera. The Orlando, FL-based company, best known for its HyCube grow system, also said it has broken ground on what will be the largest vertical farm in the Southeastern United States, growing 5 million heads of lettuce annually.
Speaking on the phone last week, Kalera Cofounder and CEO Cristian Toma said the company expects to begin production on the new indoor farm in the fourth quarter of 2019.
Founded in 2010, Kalera is best known for introducing onsite hydroponic farming to the hospitality industry via the HyCube vertical farming facility, which launched in 2018 at the Orlando World Center Marriott resort. The facility, which is housed next door to the resort’s main kitchen, provides greens for the hotel’s nine dining establishments. In addition to being an attraction Mariott can pitch in a sales deck, Toma says the HyCube also cuts the hotel’s carbon footprint down because the kitchens no longer have to have greens shipped in from distributors.
That idea of local is at the heart of Kalera’s forthcoming production facility, which will, in addition to growing the aforementioned 5 million heads of lettuce each year, serve the Orlando area as well as parts of central Florida. While he didn’t name any specific retailers, Toma Kalera is in talks with grocery chains in the area and will also serve hospitality businesses like restaurants and hotels.
Kalera uses a combination of IoT, data analytics, AI-powered process automation and cleanroom technology to monitor plant growth and ensure the correct “recipe” of lights, nutrients, and water is administered to optimize crop growth. Toma says that for future facilities — of which there will be multiple, if the one currently under construction is a success — there is potential for a fully automated operation where machines can plant crops, move the grow trays, and even harvest plants.
Right now, Kalera is focused mainly on the Southeast U.S. Though Toma didn’t have specific dates, the company plans to expand into other parts of the region in the future. He also mentioned Nordic countries as a potential target for expansion. “The climate over there is very conducive to controlled environment agriculture, and those countries are looking for imports, especially leafy greens.”
Whether or not we’ll ever see more than leafy greens in vertical farming is a question of both economics and plant science, according to Toma. For Kalera and most other vertical farming companies, lettuces and herbs are “the lowest hanging fruit” to grow because they’re short plants that can be packed densely together. In theory, at least, the more plants you can grow, the more you can sell, thereby getting a return for the money spent on power, water, and other factors needed to keep an indoor hydroponic farm up and running.
“I believe other vegetables would take a lot of labor [e.g., pruning], [and] they have multiple harvests from the same plant, so you need to have people performing all these operations,” he says.
Whether the day ever comes when we’ll see vertical farms growing, say, carrots, depends a lot on developments in plant science in future. “The varieties we are working with right now over many many years evolved to meet the challenges for outdoor production,” says Toma. “We don’t have varieties bred specifically for indoor production yet. So that’s an area where the industry can develop.”
Toma suggests that while the enthusiasm is there for the $2.51 billion vertical farming market, the industry is reaching a point where it needs to start showing some success in the form of numbers. “There’s been a lot of hype around the industry lately,” he says. “That’s great because it’s part of this new revolution in agriculture. But at one point, we do need to show good returns. Capital is impatient. It [will] fly to ‘the next big thing’ if you don’t show a good return on investment.”
Now we’ll wait and see if 5 million heads of lettuce annually can deliver on that return.