Indoor agtech startup Plenty is shelving its plans for a Seattle-area vertical farming operation, according to an article published over the weekend on GeekWire.
Plenty, who also runs a facility in the San Francisco Bay Area, announced plans for a 100,000-square-foot vertical farm in Kent, Washington in 2017 — the same year the company nabbed a $200 million investment that included contributions from Softbank and Jeff Bezos. The Kent facility was supposed to grow 4.5 million pounds of greens annually using a combination of LEDs, sensors, and cameras inside a completely climate-controlled environment.
However, Christina Ra, Plenty’s senior director of integrated marketing, told GeekWire that the company’s farming facility, Tigris, was too tall to fit inside the Kent location and that Plenty had “ceased operations” there one year ago: “As a relatively lean company, we had to just make a decision about where we were going to put our focus and we felt like building Tigris, while also focusing on Seattle as a new and really important market, was something that we couldn’t do well,” Ra said.
Meanwhile, seven former Plenty employees recently spoke with Business Insider and highlighted problems inside the company that allegedly range from unsafe working conditions to the fact that “Plenty’s leadership had exaggerated the company’s capabilities on more than one occasion.”
Plenty will carry on with its planned location in the middle of Los Angeles, which the company recently announced, and it still operates a facility in the SF Bay Area. But as this news about the Seattle operation indicates, what Plenty (or any vertical farm startup) promises versus what it actually produces aren’t necessarily aligning right now.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that refrain around expectation versus reality in vertical farming is one we’re going to hear more in the near future. As an industry, vertical farming has yet to prove itself as an environmentally and economically efficient piece of the agriculture system, and along with the hype are more and more stories about complications or outright closures of vertical farms. Already, a company called FarmedHere shut down in 2017, Plantagon went bankrupt in March of 2019, and just recently, MIT halted work on its controversial Open Agriculture Initiative project after reportedly exaggerating results of its vertical farming experiments.
While it’s bad news pretty much anytime a company goes under, for vertical farming, it’s also good information to have. As Paul P.G. Gauthier, who started the now-shelved Princeton Vertical Farming Project, told The Spoon this year, we need the stories about what isn’t working (e.g., operational costs, failure to break even, etc.) as much as we need the success stories.
And we need those stories not just to give lessons on how to employ vertical farming more effectively but how much effort (and money) we should even be investing in it as the agricultural industry continues to look for alternative forms of farming.