Indoor farming company Fifth Season today announced plans for its first commercial-scale vertical farm, which will open in early 2020 in Braddock, PA, an historic steel town near Pittsburgh.
To date, the company — originally founded as RoBotany Ltd. — has raised over $35 million. It incubated at Carnegie Mellon University’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship and currently has two test farms in Pittsburgh that supply greens to Giant Eagle and Whole Foods stores in the area, as well as to local restaurants. Fifth Season’s forthcoming new farm will grow over 500,000 pounds of lettuce in the first year of operation. The company plans to expand to additional locations throughout the U.S. in the future.
More importantly, the company, along with its cofounder and CEO Austin Webb, see robotics as a key element to vertical farming. Fifth Season uses a proprietary robotics and AI solution to assist in multiple areas of the vertical farm, from seeding to harvesting to packaging. While humans still work onsite at the farms, the bots take care of much of the heavy lifting — literally, in some cases. As AgFunder pointed out, with robots around, humans don’t have to climb multiple stories to get heavy grow trays with greens needing to be harvested.
Cutting down on this expensive labor could allow Fifth Season to offer its greens at more competitive prices in the future. “We have developed fully integrated, proprietary technology to completely control the hydroponic growing process and optimize key factors such as energy, labor usage and crop output,” Webb said in a statement, adding that the company’s “unprecedented low costs set a new standard for the future of the industry.”
We’re seeing more and more of these large-scale vertical farms that utilize automation to speed up tasks around the farm and also reduce labor costs. That includes fully autonomous systems, like Australia’s Vertical Farm Systems, or farms like Intelligent Growth Systems that use software to make vertical farming easier for those who don’t have an agricultural or engineering background. Kalera, who just broke ground on the Southeast’s largest vertical farm, is looking at fully automated solutions for future locations.
It’s far too soon to tell if any of these solutions will actually deliver the kinds of financial returns to help make vertical farming a more widespread reality, not to mention make it possible to price greens affordably in mainstream grocery retailers. Robots are one answer, and a promising one that that. We’ll need more data on what is and isn’t working, though, to better understand if they’re the entire future of vertical farming or one small piece of a much larger picture.