Spinach is fickle. It’s one of the most popular leafy greens out there, but also one of the most delicate and prone to bacteria and disease–factors that only increase when wind, rain, and dirty equipment are involved in the growing process.
Part of the reason for that, according to Element Farms CEO and cofounder Serdar Mizrakci, is that spinach is prone to plant diseases in high-density environments, and most hydroponic farms lack the tools and knowledge to combat those things and still get a consistent crop. But after years of fine-tuning both tools and knowledge, Mizrakci and Element Farms are doing just that, growing spinach and selling it to grocery retailers under its PureSpinach brand.
Mizrakci got the idea for Element Farms after moving to the U.S. from Turkey and discovering how much more difficult it was to get fresh greens any time of year. Then an MBA student at Cornell, he started visiting greenhouses on campus and realized an opportunity. “Conventional farming and hydroponics [make] an assumption that the plants like a certain climate,” he said over the phone. “As soon as they sprout, you put them in one spot and keep feeding them the same thing. But that’s not really true in terms of what [spinach] needs. We’re essentially controlling that process a lot more precisely.”
To do that, Element Farms use a combination of hydroponics and proprietary technology to grow spinach indoors. According to Mizrakci, the current farm uses about 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture during the grow process and can produce more greens in a shorter time frame (around 14 days versus the standard 30 days).
As far as tech goes the company uses proprietary, patent-pending software and sensors to control the environment, as well as customized harvesting equipment that can automate much of the grow process. All hydroponic farms use LED technology in place of the natural sunlight plants need. Element Farms’ technology is actually a dynamic lighting algorithm that combines the natural sunlight in a greenhouse with high-capacity LEDs; when the natural light starts to dim, the LEDs turn on. The platform also provides supplemental carbon dioxide to the plants, also not something found in many hydroponic farms.
“What we’re essentially doing is another layer of precision control that helps us grow healthier, easier, disease free plants,” says Mizrakci.
Element’s business model is all about providing locally grown greens. (It grows some arugula, baby kale and mustard greens, though spinach is the company’s main focus right now.) The company, which currently supplies select grocery retailers in the tristate area, only ships to stores within 100 miles of the farm, and all shipments are greens harvested within the last 24 hours.
According to Mizrakci, though, getting people to eat local is only one of the company’s goals. “I think we need to keep striving to provide people with produce that doesn’t have to compromise quality,” he says. “I see us going lower in price point than conventional salad greens today.”
Currently PureSpinach sells for about the same price as organic greens. The next step, says Mizrakci, is to get that price point on par with conventional greens and in doing so introduce hydroponic spinach to swaths of the population for whom high-end greens are typically out of reach. He wants to be the first to get high-end greens into lower-end retail stores. And as he sees it, bringing the price point down will encourage people to try PureSpinach, and it’s the taste that usually changes people’s minds: “A lot of folks don’t know what it means to have fresher produce. Once they taste it, they’ll understand what those claims are about.”
Element Farms is currently raising money through a crowdfunding campaign at Wefunder. The goal is to raise $500,000 to help the company with its national expansion plan, which includes moving to greenhouses in Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix, Dallas, Indianapolis, and a handful of other cities. The company also just purchased a new facility in central New Jersey, where it will begin operations this summer.